A.J. Burnett's Future

The signing of A.J. Burnett by Philadelphia was one that was met with as many shaking of heads as it was nodding of heads. On the heels of the news that Cole Hamels was experiencing bicep tendonitis, adding Burnett makes sense if the Phillies think they are a playoff contender. The problem is, they certainly do not appear to be a contender, even within their own division, on paper.

The other problem is that Burnett could not have picked a worse location for his skillset.

Burnett goes from a park that suppresses offense, PNC Park, to one that inflates it in Citizens Bank Park.

PNC Park
Citizens Bank

The much larger issue is the change in defense. One of the things the Pirates did with Burnett after acquiring him from the Yankees was to get him to use his two-seam fastball more often.

The two-seamer quickly became a weapon for him as it allowed him to generate groundballs at a near-career best rate. In two seasons with Pittsburgh, Burnett had groundball rates of 56.9% and 56.5%; only his 2005 effort with the Marlins was higher.

The increased groundballs played right into the strength of the Pirates as an increased emphasis on defense allowed them to turn around their team defensive efficiency from the league’s worst in 2010 to the fifth best this past season.  In 2010, the Pittsburgh defense gave away 77 runs on defense; in 2013, they saved 68 (via Baseball Info Solutions). The Pirates saved 24 runs on the infield with their shifts, which was the 7th-best total in all of baseball and the 3rd-best in the National League behind the Dodgers (38) and the Rockies (28).

Conversely, the Phillies were the worst in both situations as their infield defense costs the team 50 runs in 2013.  Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young, , Cody Asche, Freddy Galvis and the other players that played the left side of the infield accounted for 42 runs lost on defense. Michael Young was the worst at third base in the league with -20 runs and Rollins was the fourth-worst at shortstop with -15 runs. Three of the four members of the last-place defense return and Young is replaced with Asche, who is more known for his offense than his defense.

The other part of this equation is who Burnett will be throwing to.

In 2012, Burnett threw all but 8.1 innings with Rod Barajas behind the plate. This was done mainly because Burnett is slow to the plate and the other catcher, Mike McKenry, was a poor thrower. Barajas was one of the worst catchers in terms of framing pitches as he was 12.9 runs below average. That season, Burnett had 34.2% of his pitches called for strikes. Last season, Burnett threw almost exclusively to Russell Martin, who was one of the best pitch framers in the league at 15.8 runs above average. Burnett saw his percentage of called strikes jump up two percentage points to 36.3% and Burnett finished 2013 with a career-best 3.30 ERA and his lowest WHIP since 2007.

Now, he moves to Carlos Ruiz as his primary catcher, who was six runs below average in 2013 after finishing five runs above average the previous season. Ruiz ranked 36th out of 47 catchers last season in generating called strikes; Martin ranked 23rd. On converting pitches out of the strike zone into called strikes, Ruiz ranked 38th while Martin ranked 20th.

The ballpark, the defense, the receiving; all signs point to a tougher season for A.J. Burnett in 2014 compared to what he has done the previous two seasons.



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