Wednesday, December 07, 2005

In Defense of the A.J. Burnett Signing (sort of)

Sheesh, been a slow news cycle lately, huh? The Bush Cabal hasn't of late done anything flagrantly, uncharacteristically stupid, and this absence of tomfoolery has left many bloggers feeling blue. At least baseball's hot stove is burning bright; even the Braves have moved on some minor deals but commentary on those will have to wait for now.

One thing I did want to touch upon: A.J. Burnett's free agent deal with Toronto. The Blue Jays have taken a beating for the signing and not undeservedly so -- 5 years/$55 million is a huge gamble on any pitcher and the Jays are unlikely to get full value for this investment.

But what's interesting to me is the logic underpinning many of the criticisms. It's fair to say Burnett will suffer statistical backsliding in '06 -- he's trading a terrific pitching environment (NL East in general and Dolphins Stadium in particular) for one far more friendly to hitters (AL East/SkyDome). 9-man lineups (with a DH) are tougher to pitch against than 8-man lineups (no DH). But what puzzles me is how many sportstalk hosts have been trumpeting Burnett's career record (49-50) as prima facie evidence of the deal's folly.

Two problems with this approach:

  1. It overrates the importance of W-L records, which are often dictated by factors beyond a pitcher's control, such as bullpen and run support, team defense, etc. It's probably the single worst way to evaluate pitcher performance.

  2. In general, teams are paying for expected value moving forward, not rewarding past performances. Toronto sees the 98 mph fastball and comparatively low mileage and gambled $55 million chips on Burnett taking a developmental leap forward. It's a huge risk but not entirely implausible to pay off.

The reason is there are historical precedents for mid-career developmental spikes, especially among power pitchers. The comparison hardly seems valid but there are superficial similarities between A.J. Burnett and Randy Johnson. Burnett is unlikely to approach even 40% of the Big Unit's accomplishments but let's not dismiss the odds based on evidence as flimsy as W-L totals.

Let's examine the parallels:

  • After Johnson's age 28 season (where Burnett now resides), his career record was 49-48 in 130 career starts. He had a no-hitter to his credit and was best known for his overpowering wildness, prickly demeanor, and flyaway mullet. His numbers: 818 IP, 649 HA, 519 BB, 818 K, 70 HR, 3.95 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 0.77 HR/9.

  • After his age 28 season (2005), Burnett's career record is 49-50 in 131 career starts. He has a no-hitter to his credit and is best known for his overpowering stuff, prickly demeanor, and nipple rings. His numbers: 853.2 IP, 719 H, 377 BB, 753 K, 66 HR, 3.73 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 0.63 HR/9.

(According to baseball-reference, Randy Johnson's most similar by age at 28 is...(*drumroll please*)...A.J. Burnett!)

Now, I am aware that there are tons of unexamined variables here such as park effects and league contexts, but the point is simply this: hardly anyone would have predicted superstardom for Randy Johnson based on his statistical achievements through age 28. But Johnson went 75-20 in his age 29-33 seasons -- Burnett will make the Jays look pretty S-M-R-T if he spikes so dramatically. I realize that the differences between Johnson and Burnett are manifold and let me emphasize that I am not predicting the same career trajectory for Burnett.

But it's waaayyy too soon to judge this signing; all this idle speculation is just that until Burnett takes the Toronto mound. I really wish the talking heads would just shut the hell up about his record already. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to be skeptical but A.J. Burnett's career W-L record strikes me as the weakest.


Larry said...

Jay, once again, your post tops 99% of the crap out there that calls itself sports commentary. I think you have missed your calling. Do you think Burnett is dancing around his mansion singing "I am so smart, S-M-R-T", while buring his old Marlins contract? Now that's an image! Any comments on the Braves' trades? I for one was not sad to see Furkey go, but for some reason, reading about Julio going to the Mets made me sad. Looks like I have to now root for his age to catch up with him, but it seems like that's what happens to everyone once they get to Shea. Just look at Glavine. If the Mets keep this up, in a couple of seasons it'll be like the old Braves vs. the new Braves whenever the Bravos and Mets play each other. And seriously, look into a sports writers job. It would definitley make the world a better place (or at least the sports page...)

J Ballot said...


Thanks for your kind words! I've corresponded with a few sportswriters over the years and they are a mostly pompous bunch. No, I think I prefer the sanctuary of this anonymous little outpost on teh Internets instead of joining their fraternity. But I appreciate your faith in believing I could improve their profession!

I love the image of Burnett dancing around his mansion singing the "S-M-R-T" song while burning his old Marlins contract -- I also imagine adorned on his walls a well-used dartboard with Jack McKeon's face plastered to it. Then he points to it every so often and gives it his best Nelson Muntz: "Ha-ha!" And after that he forms a conga line with his wife, agent, and family and chants "5 years/55 million!" to the tune of the "You don't win friends with salad" song!

I was planning to do a separate post about the Braves' offseason moves to date and you have given me additional impetus. I'll write about it later but suffice to say I'm mostly mollified by the moves so far. Schuerholz hasn't done anything totally dumb yet and actually I admire his restraint. I'll miss Furcal but 3 years/$39 million is too much. And Estrada needed to go -- he has no secondary skills so he has to hit .300 to be useful, and even then there ain't much else there -- very few walks and very little extra-base power. Besides, McCann looks ready for the job.

I'll miss the old man but with Franco gone maybe the Braves will be wise enough to seek a long-term solution at 1B. I'm not convinced LaRoche will hit enough to warrant 500 ABs.

I'll save the rest for a FPP. Hope all is well with you and yours. Take care and talk to you soon (maybe we can catch up? Haven't seen you guys in awhile)!