Sure, Burnett’s “play in Pittsburgh or retire” remark will be replayed again and again, but c’mon Pirate fans, quit being such willfully ignorant crybabies. Granted, it’d be a lot easier to root for A.J. if he weren’t playing in Philly, but I think we can all agree, A.J. Burnett gave the Pirates his very best during the time that he was here; and really, that’s all I care about. Regardless of sport, just let me see you give a shit - run out the routine ground ball you hit to second base, dive for a ball hit in the gap, finish your check, block a shot. I don’t even care if the player stinks – PLAY HARD. That’s all I’m looking for…EFFORT, and A.J. provided that in spades.
For instance, Burnett’s effort wasn’t just relegated to on the mound duties, but off the mound as well…check this out…these guys loved playing with A.J. …
So forgive me if I don’t feel led astray because A.J. signed a one-year deal for $16 million in Philadelphia, well above his current value, all the while making at least $4 Million dollars more than the Pirates were willing to offer…Sorry, but I say GO FOR IT A.J., you earned that money (Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported the Pirates offered Burnett $12 Million although most local outlets have speculated it was between $8-$10 million per year).
And while I would never argue that the Pirates are better off for losing Burnett to another organization, the Pirates made the right decision, whether purposefully or not, by not signing him for one more season… Fearing a dramatic decline in skill, more unnecessary confrontations, as well as a now crowded rotation, and A.J. was just no longer a necessity.
Let’s look at those three points a little deeper…
A.J. is coming off his best statistical season since 2002 in Florida: Last season Burnett tied his career best in ERA, tossed the highest K/9 ratio of his career, had a more than respectable 3-to-1 Strikeout to Walk ratio, and surrendered a measly 11 homeruns in 191 innings (an average of one homerun allowed every 17 innings). Burnett also threw 18 quality starts despite not pitching from June 9 until July 7 – Add in the fact that A.J. Burnett’s fastball actually increased in velocity by .2 mph from 2012, and all of these previous facts should cripple my “decline in skill” argument; however, it goes deeper than that. Consider the following when looking at comparable pitchers to Burnett’s age and workload:
Exhibit A: Roy Halladay: Born May 14, 1977. A.J. Burnett: Born January 3, 1977.
A.J. Burnett has thrown 2,394.2 innings, including playoffs, in his professional career. That’s a lot of innings. Multiple time Cy-Young Award Winner Roy Halladay, a pitcher even more impressive than Burnett over the course of a similar career timeline, absolutely fell off a cliff at the 2,500 career innings mark: In 2011, “Doc” Halladay was arguably the best pitcher in the game, pitching 233 Innings, striking out 220 batters, while walking only 35 batters (a dominant 6.5-to-1 Strikeout to Walk ratio) – That year, “Doc” won 19 games in 25 Quality Starts while compiling a 2.35 ERA and microscopic 1.04 WHIP. Like A.J. in 2013, Roy also had the highest K/9 ratio of his career in 2011. There were absolutely zero signs of decline from Halladay in 2011.
However, after a 2011 season that was more impressive than Burnett’s 2013 in every meaningful statistical comparison, Halladay would go onto pitch the final 218.1 innings of his career in 2012 & 2013, striking out 183 and walking 72 (now a 2.5-to-1 K/BB ratio) over those two seasons – his combined WHIP for those same seasons jumped to a pedestrian 1.34, as well as an ERA that ballooned to 5.73. Halladay only pitched 62 innings in 2013 before retiring in December.
But “Doc” isn’t the only premier pitcher to rapidly decline after reaching the 2,000 career innings mark. Let’s look at Exhibit B…
Roy Oswalt: Born August 29, 1977.
Roy Oswalt racked up 2,178.2 career innings pitched through the 2010 post-season. In 2010, Oswalt fire-balled a 2.76 ERA and a sleek 1.03 WHIP: It was Oswalt’s 2nd best ERA ever and his best WHIP recorded in single season; Oswalt also added 193 strikeouts that season, the third best mark in his career. In 2011, Oswalt didn’t completely fall apart like Halladay did after a career year; instead he sported a respectable 3.69 ERA and a mediocre 1.34 WHIP, but only pitched 139 innings due to recurring back problems – he just wasn't the same pitcher. In 2012, Oswalt pitched for the Texas Rangers as a starter and reliever, but was humbled by a 5.80 ERA and 1.53 WHIP, giving up an atrocious 38 earned runs in only 59 innings, but that’s not the worst part. In 2013 as a member of the Colorado Rockies, Oswalt saw the “cliff” and careened off of it at a very high rate of speed. Though Oswalt did strike out over a batter per inning (34 strikeouts in 32.1 innings), he also hemorrhaged a historically bad 31 Earned Runs in the same 32-inning sample size; good enough for an embarrassing 8.63 ERA and 1.79 WHIP – there are guys that throw batting practice with better numbers than that.
And while I concur that just because Halladay and Oswalt are better pitchers than Burnett, it doesn’t mean they are less prone to injury; however, it does render the argument that A.J. should’ve gotten paid in 2014 solely because he is coming off of a career season irrelevant.
Now I’m not guaranteeing A.J. dies in the middle of the 2014 season by any means, but he will hit 2,500 career innings sometime in July, he has spent time on the DL in each of his two seasons in Pittsburgh, and at age 37, it’d be hard to imagine Burnett not getting dinged up at some point, even if it’s just a minor injury. The Pirates just don’t have that type of money to gamble: Especially not after giving a raise to Charlie Morton, signing Edison Volquez, and still having a canyon sized hole on the right side of their defense. (That being said, the Pirates will raise season ticket prices each year for the next three seasons)
Ironically, both Halladay’s and Oswalt’s careers basically ended in Philadelphia, so it’s no wonder the Phillies would jump at an opportunity to give Burnett a well-above market value contract (cue to Phillies fans just realizing they signed the Pirates two oldest players from 2013 (Marlon Byrd as well)…sleep well Phillies fans, sleep well --- karma eventually caught up to you after these photos surfaced…Nobody disrespects the Horsemen…
To be fair, there are two other pitchers with a similar or larger workload than Burnett that both signed two-year deals this offseason - Tim Hudson and Bronson Arroyo…
Tim Hudson (born in 1975) has pitched an impressive 2,850 innings in his career and was still going strong in 2013 until a freak injury to his ankle while covering first base ended his season. This past off-season Hudson signed a market value two-year $23 Million dollar deal with San Francisco. Also, the rubber-armed Bronson Arroyo, who is one month younger than Burnett, is at 2,308 career innings; he just signed a two-year $19 million dollar deal with the Diamondbacks.
While both of these pitchers have as many, if not more innings pitched than Burnett, neither pitcher has ever been considered a strikeout pitcher like Burnett, Halladay, or Oswalt. Hudson and Arroyo pitch to contact; which is less stress on their arm because they aren’t going as deep into counts consistently, nor are they throwing as hard in order to strike an opposing batter out (Arroyo tops out around 90 mph). So while I would understand the argument regarding Hudson and Arroyo, I don’t think the comparisons to Burnett are as relevant as Halladay and Oswalt.
Lastly, judging by Pirates GM Neal Huntington’s history with pitchers, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
After all, Huntington traded a warm case of beer to get Burnett from the Yankees in the first place, not to mention the Yankees were on the hook for over half his tab the past two seasons. A few seasons earlier, Mr. Huntington acquired Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke for Nate McClouth (it was either McClouth or another warm case of beer)…and do I even need to mention how Neal plucked a left-for-dead Francisco Liriano from the trash heap in free agency before last season? Didn’t think so. Just do ya thang, Neal baby…do ya thang.
The second reason the Pirates may have been inclined to let Burnett walk is because they were sick of the constant confrontations with fellow players and Management. Burnett showed up Clint Barmes amongst others during his tenure in Pittsburgh; also, A.J. never had a problem voicing his displeasure toward Clint Hurdle whenever he felt necessary. This wasn’t the first time Burnett has behaved in such a manner either; in 2005, Burnett criticized the entire Marlins Management and was asked by the team to leave…from Wikipedia …
On September 27, 2005, Burnett was asked by the Marlins to leave the team. The request came a day after he made comments criticizing the organization: "We played scared. We managed scared. We coached scared", he told reporters following the Marlins' 5–3 loss at Turner Field. "I'm sick of it, man. It's depressing around here. A 3–0 ballgame, I give up one run and leave guys on base, it's like they expect us to mess up. And when we do, they chew us out. There is no positive, nothing around here for anybody."
Marlins manager Jack McKeon called Burnett into his office and broke the news. Burnett shook his hand, gathered up his belongings, and left. Burnett has since apologized, saying:
"I have always been a very passionate player and person. I often wear my emotions on my sleeve, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. I hope that my teammates always respect that of me, as I trust they know my commitment to winning. For those I've offended, I offer my most sincere apologies."
So there’s that…
There were also rumors that Pirates Management was concerned Burnett wouldn’t show up for the team flight to St. Louis before the decisive Game 5 in last years playoffs: Burnett was obviously unhappy he was passed over to start the game in favor of rookie phenom Gerrit Cole; so unhappy in fact that Burnett declared himself “unavailable” to pitch before Game 5 had even started, which is just bush-league. There’s a fine line between being passionate and being selfish, and Burnett’s behavior was astonishingly selfish at the least opportune time of the season. A player of A.J.’s caliber needs to handle that situation better, and it may have made the Pirates think twice about throwing a bunch of money at someone his age with his personality.
Lastly, the Pirates have a full rotation and depth in the Minor Leagues; if they no longer want to deal with A.J. acting like a petulant child sometimes, they no longer need to. In 2011, Burnett was a necessity for a mediocre Pirates team that lacked an identity – in 2013, the Pirates younger players established themselves as difference makers: McCutchen is a star, Cole, Alvarez, and Marte are all well on their way too – hometown hero Neil Walker is the ultimate “glue” guy, and Russell Martin provides stability behind the plate.
The Pirates rotation may have outgrown Burnett at his present level too: Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano are more than capable of being front-end starters; with the departure of Burnett, Charlie Morton will move from the #4 slot to the #3 slot, while Wandy Rodriguez and Edison Volquez fill out the back of the rotation. Also expected to be called up before the end of 2014 is former first-round pick Jamison Taillion, and lest we not forgot 2013 All-Star Jeff Locke.
So fellow yinzers, don’t hold hostilities against A.J. Burnett because of a politically correct statement he gave to the hometown media over a year ago: A.J. is a man that gave YOU everything he had; a man that was instrumental in saving our Pirates the humiliation of a 21st straight losing season; and yes, A man that took the extra money that HE EARNED while playing his guts out in Pittsburgh, which is certainly not a crime.
Was A.J. Burnett perfect all the time in Pittsburgh? No, but he was the perfect guy at the perfect time, and he gave every ounce of himself to the Pirates organization – in this age of mercenary athletes for hire, that’s all you can ask for.
So tip your cap Pittsburgh…to A.J. Burnett…a man that left the Pirates much better than when he found them…(or something like that).