Fantasy Buy Low Special: Pirates SP A.J. Burnett
I'm about to go crabby old statistics man are you. Are you ready? Here goes nothing: Win-loss records are so gosh darn pointless.
Do you feel it, that Important Stats Creed washing over you like the refreshing baptismal waters of the Red Sea? Yeah, the whole win-loss record bad thing is a little bit played out, but to a generation raised on wins as the stat worth more than a McDouble, it's still a bit jarring when wins don't coincide with how well a pitcher is actually pitching. Case in point: A.J. Burnett.
Burnett sits 3-5 for the Pirates this season, a record that puts him on par with Ricky Nolasco, Roberto Hernandez, and Joe Saunders. Among Pirates pitchers, the murderer's row of Wandy Rodriguez, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson all hold more wins. So much for Burnett's 2012 16-win bounceback year...
Except that, you know, Burnett hasn't given up more than three earned runs in an appearance all season, has pitched at least 5.0 IP in every single one of his outings, and hasn't gone less than six innings in his last seven appearances. He holds a 3.07 SO/BB ratio, the NL's leading strikeouts per nine innings at 10.5, and the NL's fourth-best hits per nine innings at 6.4.
According to our projections, those numbers aren't going to change too much. We do project his current second-most strikeouts to slightly regress to about 13th, but we also expect his current 70th-most wins to increase to tied for most over the rest of the season. And it all starts with inducing ground balls.
Don't Let 'Em Hit Ya Where It Hurts
Tell me if you can find the pattern in these numbers. GB/FB stands for groundball/flyball ratio, the higher number meaning more ground balls induced. FYI: 2005 and 2007 were Burnett's two highest figures in the ratio before his days in Western PA.
Allowing more ground balls than fly balls correlates positively with allowing fewer hits and walks. Makes sense, right? Fly balls are much more likely to go for extra-base hits, and remember, Burnett played on a few defensively poor Florida Marlins teams (as well as one that inexplicably won the World Series, but you know). Burnett's always been better than the 0.78 MLB average over his career, but there has only been a few times where he's been exceptional in the stat.
So why, then, didn't Burnett keep going back to throwing the ball low to induce those grounders? It's hard to say. Before coming to Pittsburgh, his previous four seasons had seen him at an even 1.00 GB/FB or below. Other than those 2005 and 2007 seasons, he had never been above 1.09 in a full year with at least 200 batters faced. He tried relying on strikeouts and that's about it.
An arrival in Pittsburgh, though, saw a change in strategy. And based on the numbers, it seems to have paid dividends.
|'13 MLB Average||1.11||1.304|
Given the amount of groundballs he's induced this season, it's not surprising at all to see Burnett with the fourth-least hits per nine innings allowed in the National League. Even though his walk rate has slightly jumped to 9.4 percent from 7.9 percent last year (career average is 9.6 percent), his WHIP still sits No. 24 among all qualified major league starters.
When coupled with the strikeouts that have always been Burnett's bread and butter, it yields a positively dominant pitching performance. A 28.7 percent strikeout rate? Sure, that fifth-best-among-qualified-pitchers rate is about as sustainable as UPitt's Tourney runs every March (sorry Nik, I had to), but Burnett is more than a one-trick pony this year. The groundball rate is what should keep his WHIP down even if his strikeouts do slightly regress.
Given the numbers, A.J. Burnett should be one of the league's ten best pitchers over the rest of this season. Before you even ask, I do feel a little bit dirty writing that line. But it's entirely true. I mean, just look at these projections:
Projected Rest of Season Stats
Why, I'd take those numbers in a heartbeat. Given the length of his outings, seeing Burnett with the second-most projected plate appearances against isn't a surprise, and all that does is leave more time for those sweet, sweet strikeouts. When combined with those tied-for-most 10 wins the rest of the way, Burnett as the seventh-best fantasy pitcher isn't all that surprising.
Yes, for fantasy purposes, our remaining pitcher projections see him as better than Gio Gonzalez. Better than Justin Verlander (barely). Better than, gasp, the One True Lord and Savior of Queens Matt Harvey. If you play fantasy baseball with friends that just look at those win-loss records, take advantage and pick up Burnett right now.