From 3rd Starter to 3rd Starter — AJ Burnett and the Magic of Contract Years

Barring a last minute change of heart, Andy Pettitte’s distinguished career is over – according to reports resonating throughout the baseball world, Pettitte will announce his retirement Friday.  The announcement, just days before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, would put a nice bow on a Yankees off-season that has included overpaying a closer not to close, signing a formerly Hall of Fame trajectory centerfielder to platoon in LF, and a once silver slugging catcher with 12 HRs the past two seasons.

Longtime baseball writer Jayson Stark quotes one seasoned baseball executive as summarizing Pettitte’s career as “the greatest #3 starter of his generation”.Calling Pettitte the greatest #3 of his generation can be debated, but the quote focused my attention on the Yankees current 3rd starter, AJ Burnett.  Burnett possesses tantalizing stuff – mid 90s fastball and a knee buckling curve, but has been able to make the leap to staff ace.  Burnett’s struggles last season reached epic proportions — he posted an ERA close to 7.00 in the season’s final two months and got shelled in his only postseason start – after nearly being passed over by Joe Girardi.

Given the question marks at the back of the Yankee rotation and the competitiveness of the AL East (after CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, the Yankees have a hodgepodge of has beens and unknowns), it is hard to imagine the Yankees as serious contenders without a strong showing from Burnett, slotting in behind CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes.  Opinions vary as to both the root cause of Burnett’s struggles and the likelihood of a quick rebound.  The hard data offers some evidence, but few conclusions.  Burnett threw fewer strikes in 2010 than ever before, and pitching from behind in the count he threw more fastballs and generated fewer swinging strikes than ever before.  His fastball lost some velocity, but still averaged over 93 MPH on the gun.  The evidence of a down year is unmistakable, but why the dropoff?

Insight in this case, however, is found elsewhere.  AJ Burnett is in the 3rd year of a 5 year, $82.5M contract with the Yankees.  Burnett inked his deal in December 2008, shortly after opting out following the 3rd year of a 5 year/$55M contract with the Blue Jays.   It got me thinking about whether or not there is any quantitative evidence to support the idea that the contracts may have something to do with his performance.

Going back through Burnett’s major league career, Burnett made 20 starts over two seasons with the Marlins, ultimately establishing himself as a major leaguer in 2001.  In 2002, Burnett took the mound knowing that that offseason, he would for the first time be arbitration eligible.  Burnett threw 204 innings at an ERA of 3.30 and tossed a league leading 5 shutouts.  Through the magic of Cots Contracts, we know that though the Marlins won their arbitration case, Burnett was rewarded with a $2.5M contract for 2003.  Burnett lost all but 4 starts to injury in 2004, but re-upped with the Marlins for another $2.5M in 2004 and managed to pitch for approximately two thirds of the season.  Florida and Burnett agreed on a $3.65M contract in his last arbitration year, and following the 2005 season, Burnett signed the 5 year deal with Toronto, playing 3 seasons north of the border.

Given how Burnett’s arbitration years and contract worked out, 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2008 meant the most to Burnett in terms of contract negotiation and ultimately salary (though obviously the 2005 and 2008 seasons carried more weight because Burnett was an unrestricted free agent following those two seasons).

Burnett’s career numbers can be found here.  Separating the four contract seasons from AJ’s other career numbers, here is the breakdown:

Total Non-Contract Contract
IP 1767.2 1013.0 754.2
AVG IP 164 148 189
ERA 3.99 4.27 3.63
K/9 8.24 7.76 8.89
BB/9 3.78 4.00 3.50
WHIP 1.34 1.39 1.26
WAR 31.6 13.5 18.1

Burnett has logged 750 innings in contract years (about 42% of his major league total) and over 1000 in non-contract years, so while more data is always preferable, each category presents over three season’s worth on information.  Regardless of the breakdown of fastballs versus curveballs, swinging strikes, pitchers park (in Florida) or facing DH’s in the AL East, Burnett is durable and posts All-star numbers when pitching for a contract and middle relief numbers without the pressure of an upcoming salary negotiation.

What does this mean for the Yankees 2011 chances?  Burnett’s electric arsenal wasn’t good enough to get him on the mound posting ace numbers in his mid to late 20s, and there is little reason to expect him to be anything but a #5 starter this season.

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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