Burnett’s importance to the 2011 Yankees

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(Charlie Neibergall/AP)

The storyline has shifted to a new pitcher. Yesterday it was CC Sabathia and the opt-out in his contract. Today reported moved to A.J. Burnett. The subject matter, as it has all winter, centered on his ability to put 2010 behind him. His ability to do so could determine the Yankees’ fate in 2011.

Simply improving on 2010 will not be enough. Burnett finished the season with a 5.26 ERA in 186.2 innings, so a marginal improvement won’t do much good. What the Yankees need is a repeat of 2009, when Burnett struck out nearly a batter per inning and finished with a 4.04 ERA. That might not seem like $16.5 million’s worth, but it should be enough to solidify the top end of the pitching staff.

What are the chances that Burnett improves significantly upon his 2010? At this point we can do one of three things: 1) we can guess, 2) we can look at projection systems, or 3) we can forget about it, say he sucks, and pack it in for the season. Since No. 3 is an option only for people who don’t read RAB, and since No. 2 is more productive than No. 1, let’s take a look at Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections.

Even though Burnett turns 34 this season, PECOTA does see a distinct improvement in 2011. A big factor in that is his strikeout rate, which tumbled in 2010. PECOTA forecasts Burnett to strike out 8.1 batters per nine innings, which is over a batter more than his 2010 rate. It also lines up almost perfectly with his career rate of 8.23 per nine. That, combined with steady walk and home run rates, figures to produce a 4.56 ERA, or .7 runs per nine innings better than last season. In terms of BP’s WARP, that’s 2.6 wins, which easily trumps the zero wins he produced by the same standard in 2010.

While this type of improvement seems reasonable, the Yankees will probably need a bit more. BP recently published its AL East forecasted standings (unfortunately, subscriber-only). The takeaway is that the Yankees are projected to finish one game back of the Red Sox. While each player on the team contributes in some way to that discrepancy, perhaps no Yankees player can improve on his projection in the manner Burnett can. If he drops that extra half-run and get his ERA around four, that should amount to one extra win.* There’s the difference right there.

*This is based on other pitchers of around 3.6 wins. The easiest comparison is Josh Beckett, who is forecasted for a 3.95 ERA in 187 innings, or a 3.6 WARP.

When the Yankees signed Burnett to that five-year, $82.5 million contract in the winter of 2008, they saw him as their No. 2 starter. While he served that function in 2009, he was far from it in 2010. In 2011 he’ll have to return to form if the Yankees are going to keep pace. They might have a thin staff now, but if Burnett turns back into the guys the Yankees signed, they can hold on with a strong top of the rotation and a powerful offense. And Burnett knows exactly what is expected of him: “I came here to win. I came here to pitch…And I’m here to be a factor.”

Stuff to watch in Spring Training
Awww Schlit: Brian's gone
  • http://twitter.com/steveh_MandAura Steve H

    If it’s age related maybe he doesn’t improve, or slips further from 2010. If it wasn’t age related though, he’s certainly bound to improve. Last year was the first full season of his career in which he wasn’t at least a league average pitcher. As inconsistent as he is inning to innings, game to game, etc, he was never a disaster (while healthy) until last season.

  • rek4gehrig

    He’ll be fine (he made up with Karen)

  • Mister Delaware

    Using the presumed rotations (I added Garcia/Nova/Mitre for our 4/5 just to get the innings in the same range) …

    BOS: 18.7, 883 IP
    TBA: 15.1, 813 IP
    NYA: 15.1, 862 IP

    … Even if A.J. hits his PECOTA projection (which I think most of us would take if guaranteed), its going to take a big performance by one of the 4/5 guys or prospects just to get us close to Boston or Tampa Bay’s rotations. Of course, this ignores the lineup advantage we should have.

    (Whats really scary is how dependent we are on Sabathia. 223 IP at a 6.6 WARP. If you RAB guys decide to do one of those “ranking the roster 1-25 in terms of indispensability” things, you might want to leave #2 blank out of respect to the gap between CC and everyone else.)

    • Total Dominication

      Cano and A-rod aren’t that far behind. think of what we have as replacement.

    • http://twitter.com/kschmidt2 Kiersten

      I really don’t see Boston’s rotation being better than Tampa’s, let alone that much better.

      • Mister Delaware

        Probably because Tampa’s is young and has more future upside. For 2011, cost not a consideration, I’d rather trust Boston’s.

    • Mike HC

      You are right about CC. He is the most indispensable player on the Yanks. But that will be true of most teams. Few teams can lose an ace like CC and expect to overcome that.

  • batman

    you know cashman isnt going to sit on this rotation all year, he’s just waiting for teams to fall out of contention so their fans wont kill themselves when they trade their best pitcher

  • CS Yankee

    Never a good deal when you hope that he regains to a #3 type pitcher (like 2009) versus a #6 pitcher (like 2010).

    Hopefully, he grows back to that #2 guy with the new pitching coach, adjustments, etc…but yeah, anything near a 4 (ERA) will be thankful for and not complain about dollars per WAR or not being an ace.

    Throw is a couple of timely postseason W’s this year and he’ll turn into a legend.

  • king of fruitless hypotheticals

    when you look at those last one or two wins, don’t forget they may come at the expense of the sox or the rays, which doubles its magnitude. so, AJ, when you throw your no-hitter this year, do it AGAINST boston IN boston if you don’t mind. kthxbai.

  • AndrewYF

    I know it’s a defeatist attitude, but if you offered me the Yankees finishing one game behind the Red Sox (who presumably will finish first) for 2011, well, sign me the hell up for that.

    • YankeesJunkie

      Any way the Yankees get in the playoffs they get in and have a 1/8 chance to win it all. Which is better than 0.

      • Mike HC

        Homefield advantage is an actual, legitimate advantage though. So even if you are going to neglect subjective analysis of the teams, homefield will definitely shift those rigid 1/8 odds at least a little bit.

        • YankeesJunkie

          That is true, but baseball’s home field advantage is less of any of the major sports, but point taken.

        • Mister Delaware

          Because I can’t be the only one who was curious …

          From 1995-2010
          Yankees Playoffs: 94-58 (.618)
          Yankees Home: 49-26 (.653)
          Yankees Away: 45-32 (.584)

    • Mike HC

      I wouldn’t sign up for that. The Yanks are going to mash and we have CC anchoring the rotation. Our bullpen is dominant, and our defense, which I don’t think gets enough credit, is also very strong. There is plenty here to win the division even leaving out the possibility of a mid season trade.

      • king of fruitless hypotheticals

        Yeah, I don’t believe this BOS rotation is teh awezomezauce!!1! crap…their pitchers aren’t all that, and I think we field a much better offense. FFS, Papelbon is their CLOSER.