The amazing incredible durable A.J. Burnett

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We’re all very busy people so I won’t bury the lede: when the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett there were significant concerns about his injury history, but he has defied those concerns to become a veritable innings-eater. Given how much roster variance and injury risk the recent squads have exhibited, and despite the decline in his performance relative to his gold-standard 2008 campaign, the signing has to be deemed a mild to moderate success nearly halfway through the life of the deal if only for the fact that he has stayed healthy.

The principal worry about A.J was his extensive injury history. Prior to signing with the Yankees, A.J. had topped 200 innings only three times in his career, two of which were contract years. He had already had Tommy John surgery, and he had battled shoulder problems as well. As a result, many Yankee blogs greeted the news of Burnett’s union with the Yankees with disdain. Some were humorous – I specifically recall a delightful NoMaas photoshop of Brian Cashman as the Heath Ledger Joker lighting a pyramid of money on fire. Others had no use for humor and went straight to the gallows. Cliff Corcoran sounded like a man on the brink:

I cannot help but react emotionally to this signing. It is an inexplicably awful, irresponsible, wrong-headed move. I hate hate hate it. It makes me physically sick. Combined with the New Stadium, it is enough for me to question my allegiance to this team. I cannot be consoled. I assume many of you feel the same way.

Hang in there, Cliff! Overall at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe questioned whether this move represented a gigantic step back for Brian Cashman as general manager:

Burnett’s combination of fragility and perceived squeamishness calls to mind the darkest chapter of Yankee GM Brian Cashman’s tenure, the two deals he inked at the 2004 Winter Meetings with a pair of injury-riddled pitchers coming off rare healthy, effective seasons, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright.

I wasn’t writing in 2008 – I didn’t even have a Twitter account – so I’m thankful that no one can blockquote my reaction to the signing at the time, a reaction that would no doubt have been similarly angry. R.J. Anderson’s reaction in retrospect was a bit more measured, more calculated:

Kudos to Dave for nailing the years/money here. A.J. Burnett is a 3 WAR starter, and he’s being paid as one. This is a buyers market, and the Yankees are absolutely thriving in it. A lot can be said for spending money and a lot more should be said for Brian Cashman and the Yankees paying these free agents exactly what they’re worth. Of course, the Yankees are one of the few teams who can pay what they’re worth, but that might be a market inefficiency within itself.

Sadly, A.J. Burnett has not been a 3 fWAR pitcher since coming to New York. He was a 3.4 fWAR pitcher in 2009 and a 1.3 fWAR pitcher in 2010, and he’s currently on pace for 1.6 fWAR in 2011.This adds up to about 7 fWAR in 2011, 2 shy of his projection. Assuming a straight-line valuation of $5.0M per win, his performance will have been worthy roughly $35M to the Yankees at the end of this year. This is a little over $14M shy of the amount the Yankees have paid him for his services. Of course, we know the value of those 7 fWAR isn’t necessarily best calculated on a straight-line method. We know that the marginal value of a win as the Yankees approach 90 wins goes up a great deal. We also know that the Yankees won the World Series in one of those years, and that they have so much money that they can afford to pay A.J. Burnett more than what he ends up being worth.

So A.J.’s performance has missed the mark a bit so far, and it’s fallen well short of any expectation set by his superb 2008 campaign in Toronto. At the same time, the fears that Burnett would be Carl Pavano 2.0, while well-founded, have not come to fruition. Since the start of the 2009 season Burnett has thrown 468.1 innings, a few shy of John Danks and Zack Greinke and ahead of Matt Garza and Chad Billingsley. Here’s a more relevant fact: since he signed with New York he’s made 78 starts. Only eleven pitchers have made more, and the most anyone has made is 81. In other words, Burnett has made just about as many starts as anyone in the game. He may not be the most efficient pitcher in the game, as evidenced by the fact that Sabathia has thrown over 100 innings more than him over that time period despite making only 2 more starts, but he’s been there.

Woody Allen said that 80% of success is just showing up. Like most aphorisms, there’s a kernel of truth there. How you perform once you arrive matters too, and A.J.’s performance hasn’t always been what we’ve wanted. There has been more than enough Bad A.J., more than enough meltdowns, more than enough “Oh good Lord, A.J.” moments. But he’s more or less gotten the first 80% right, which is more than you can say about Daisuke Matsuzaka or John Lackey over the course of their contracts so far. Burnett has shown up. When one examines what the expectations were – not worst-case scenarios, actual expectations – and realize how low the bar was set for Burnett, this is not nothing.

It was axiomatic that A.J. Burnett was an injury risk; it was a given that he would disappoint and hurt himself. Things usually become axiomatic for a reason. They acquire discursive weight and momentum because of something – an observation, a stereotype, good or bad data, a presumption, a reasonable expectation. All of the observations about Burnett’s health risk were mostly accurate, if not a bit histrionic. And yet there’s a lesson here that past performance is no guarantee of future results, that you can’t predict baseball, that sometimes your 50% weighted mean forecast doesn’t turn out to be what actually happens. We know this, or at least we tell ourselves that we do, but sometimes we don’t always act that way when put on the spot. This doesn’t mean that we should start expecting the outlier, but it’s a good reminder that once in awhile this game tosses you a pleasant surprise. And who doesn’t love a pleasant surprise?

Sanchez sent to Extended Spring Training due to 'attitude problems'
2011 Draft: Baseball America's Mock Draft v3.0
  • jsbrendog


  • bakekrukow412

    I you jinx him there will be hell to pay.

    • Mike HC

      haha … this has jinx written all over it. If AJ can’t stay healthy the next two seasons or so, the signing will still be what everyone thought it would be.

      Although I personally liked signing. I rarely don’t agree with a signing if ownership is willing to spend the money.

  • JobaTheHeat62

    I was ok with the AJ signing, and after a world series I was really ok with it…Sure last year was god awful, but alot of pitchers have a bad season from time to time. If he keeps up this year what he has been doing and the last 2 years are comparable then there is alot worse things to complain about. Here is the icing on the cake tho…John Lackey has the same contract and he has been atrocious in every sense of the word.

    • CMP

      Lackey has been horrible this year but he was worth 4.0 WAR last year which is more than Burnett will likely be in 2010 and 2011 combined.

      • Andrew518

        You can deride me as a Sabermetric skeptic but this is where some of these stats just don’t add up, 4.0 WAR be damned Lackey was awful last year…worse this year.

        • Andrew518

          Reply to own reply:

          In the end I think Burnett has more upside than Lackey, he can be frustratingly good when he’s got his head together. The likelyhood of him figuring out the mental game at this point in his career…minimal, but when he’s on he’s a far better pitcher than Lackey.

          • CMP

            AJ has the “great stuff” reputation however he’s basically been a number 4 starter innings eater for more than the last year rather than the top of the rotation starter he was signed to be.

            • Andrew518

              I agree that he’s basically been a number 4 starter, I think his stuff trancends reputation, that’s what makes him so infuriating to me. For a few innings at a time he can look like one of the league’s best starters, (something his paycheck reflects), but for one reason or another he just can’t seem to hold it together consistantly.

              Poster child for not giving a big contract based off of one statistically great year, which he’s managed to do twice, and why long term the Yankees may have been wise (admitadly not by choice) to avoid C Lee.

              • Adam B

                I just don’t understand why you would sign a 32 year old, stuff reliant pitcher through his decline years…

                and to be honest he was never really that good to begin with. That along with the health concerns made this a very suspect signing.

                • MikeD

                  Would you undo it knowing he was one of the top three starters for their world championship team?

                  I just wonder when fans put their heads on their collective pillows at night, does cost-per-wins (a highly suspect statistic and one that does not play well market-to-market, team-to-team) mean anything to them?

                  Means little to me.

  • hogsmog

    Great article. This season is the first time I’ve been mature enough to use ‘replacement level innings eater’ in a non-defamatory manner.

  • CMP

    You could have shortened this piece to one sentence.

    “He hasn’t been good but at least he hasn’t been injured. “

  • Adam B

    I still think this was a signing the yankees never should have made… However his 09 playoffs cannot be discounted…
    This is why I want the yankees to develop their pitchers better so they don’t have to resort to these things.

  • bexarama

    Yeah, I didn’t like the signing. I still don’t, really, but the reason was because I honestly thought he’d be hurt all the time. Obviously the contract’s not over, but, well, it’s nice to see him be healthy. I mean, Dice-K in the first two years of his contract was pretty good (wow, a 126 ERA+ – yeah yeah yeah, his FIP was probably higher – and an 8.6 K/9 albeit while walking a ton of people, he was better than I remembered), but he already had big injury red flags.

    Also, this amused me from the comments on the Corcoran article:
    Damn, I really see Cashman thinking they’re done with Pettitte signed then taking the holidays and January off, as usual, while Manny signs with the Dodgers for three years, Dunn with the Nationals for three years, and Giambi with Tampa Bay for two years. Moron.
    Damn, there was a lot of Cashman hatred there. And Bronx Banter is hardly WasWatching. Wow.

    • Gonzo

      The best was the guy that insisted Cash should be fired for not being able to land a 16 year old Felix Hernandez.

      • bexarama

        where is that comment?

        • Gonzo

          Sorry a little hungover. Ok, a lot hungover. I was just referring to some randome guy who used to say that on here.

          • bexarama

            haha, it’s okay. /patpat (The fact that someone used to say that doesn’t surprise me at all, I just didn’t see it on there)

  • first time lawng time

    I love AJ and the signing.

    • Will

      So do I!

      I understand that he can be frustrating to watch at times, but I am baffled at the Pavano/Irabu level of hate AJ gets here and elsewhere online.

  • dalelama

    AJ is a mental case who will disappoint when appropriate this season.

  • Tom Zig

    “It was axiomatic that A.J. Burnett was an injury risk”

    Axiomatic? Really? It’s a saturday afternoon! Please be more considerate to the readers who are hung over.

    But in seriousness, good post.

  • Wil Nieves Number 1 Fan

    …same old AJ?

  • bill

    Fact of the matter is without AJ’s gem in game 2 of the 09′ world series we lose that series, right than and there as yankees fans who only care about winning, ending that 8 year drought was enough for me at least

  • mike c

    the 1.6 WAR projected for AJ this season seems a little low. it isn’t that far off for him to get back to his 2009 production, although I understand the lack of confidence

  • joe s.

    I agree with bill. A.J.’s game 2 start in 2009 world series was clutch and should at least count for something in that it allowed the yanks to get back in the series and eventually end the drought. Not to mention the fact it prevented a phils “dynasty” and shut up all ignorant phils fans

  • lady gaga

    did not read.