With the approval of the commissioner’s office, the anticipated trade of A.J. Burnett to the Pittsburgh Pirates was completed. The party is officially over and the pie has been retired, although it really wasn’t a regular staple since 2009 – the year of the walk off. That was the year Burnett made it a point to pie anyone responsible for late-inning heroics. A.J. was the pie-er almost as often as Soupy Sales was the pie-ee back on his TV show. Well, not really.
But it was a magical year, to steal a cliché. Burnett kept things fun and lively during the regular season that year even though he didn’t pitch as well in many ways as he did the previous year when he went 18-10 for the Toronto Blue Jays. Yet he still managed to finish with a winning 13-9 regular season record in his inaugural season in the Bronx. Little did anyone know at the time it would be his one and only winning season with the Bombers.
Yet even though Burnett lost more games than he won after 2009, it is fair to say that if it wasn’t for A.J. the Yankees might not have won their 27th championship that year. The series started off with CC Sabathia pitching for the Yankees and Cliff Lee as the starter for the Philadelphia Phillies. It was a series that the Yankees could have faced Lee in three games. Lee dominated the Yankees in Game 1, leaving the Bombers in a Game 2 must-win situation with the prospect of seeing Lee twice more. Yankee manager Joe Girardi sent Burnett to the mound in Game 2 and he answered the bell with a seven-inning gem which the Yankees won to tie the series.
The Yankees went on to win the series in six games with Burnett pitching and losing in Game 5 against Cliff Lee albeit A.J. did pitch on only three days rest that night. It might not seem like it was a tough series but after the Game 1 loss, Yankee fans were very nervous seeing what Lee had done to them and rightfully considered Game 2 to be do-or-die before it started.
Even though he had a record of one win and one loss in that World Series, many people considered A.J. to be the savior and he was riding high. Starting in 2010, however, things were quite different and it was all downhill. Good thing Javier Vazquez was there to take much of the heat and fan ire.
So fast forward to 2012 and it’s time to move the enigmatic A.J. out of town. Enter the Pirates and exit Burnett back to the National League. The question has been asked many times in the past week or so about how he would fare changing leagues. The general assumption of many is back in the NL, in the weak Central Division, and especially away from the American League East, Burnett would automatically be better – almost to the point of a slam dunk. But just as a slam dunk isn’t always automatic in the NBA, neither is it in baseball.
Burnett still has the stuff to succeed with his fastball just under 93 miles per hour, and he demonstrated that with an increase in his K/9 from 6.99 in 2010 to 8.18 in 2011. While that is good news, it comes with the realization that he also had an increase in BB/9 from 3.76 to 3.92. The move to the designated hitter-less NL should bode well for both these ratios.
Another thing to consider, however, is a big increase in the number of home runs Burnett allowed in 2011. A grand total of 31 of them; the most of any season in his career. Things may not get much better in PNC Park as an overlay of the home runs A.J. allowed in 2011 at Yankee Stadium shows virtually the same number would have left the park in the Pirates’ home field. In other words, the dingers Burnett allowed weren’t of the cheap variety. On the good side, an increase in ground balls was met with a corresponding decrease in fly balls. The problem, however, was both were met with an even bigger increase in the HR/FB rate.
Going back to the ground balls, the Yankee defense in 2011 helped Burnett quite a bit more than Pittsburgh’s would have and it remains to be seen how that will play out in 2012, although Pittsburgh should improve. In Burnett’s favor, though, is he will be reunited with catcher Rod Barajas, who caught most of his games when he had the best year of his career with Toronto in 2008.To sum it all up, A.J. Burnett still has the talent (raw stuff) to be a successful pitcher, and, even more so in the weaker NL Central Division. However, I don’t expect him to have another year like 2008 – especially with a much weaker offense than the Yankees had – and probably not as good a year as the initial reactions are. But he is certainly going to be useful in NL leagues as a sure start.