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?