The Pittsburgh Pirates have been heavily scouting starting pitchers that are said to be available at the trade deadline. They may end up turning to a familiar face. A.J. Burnett is said be open to returning the Pirates. His old teammates would be happy to welcome him back.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 22, 2014
Of course this raises a few questions, the first being is he really an upgrade? Burnett is not quite the same pitcher he was last season when he posted a 3.30 ERA and a 9.85 K/9 rate. This year the strikeouts are down and the walks are up. He currently has a 3.87 ERA and a 3.96 FIP. On the surface that doesn’t appear to be much of an upgrade over Edinson Volquez (3.86 ERA, 4.36 FIP). However, there is one big variable unaccounted for if you try to compare these pitchers on stats alone. That missing variable is A.J.’s old battery mate Russell Martin.
It is my believe that reuniting Burnett with Russell Martin would greatly improve A.J.’s performance. Pitch framing data alone greatly suggests it would. The following table which is derived from baseballprospectus.com pitch framing data represents the number of extra framed strikes per 9 innings for each of the Pirates and Phillies catchers this season.
I looked at A.J. Burnett’s splits this season to find the number of innings he has been caught by each catcher and determined the weighted average of strikes he has lost due to the framing abilities of Phillies’ catchers to be -0.17. The difference between Russell Martin and the Phillies’ catchers would be 1.8 extra strikes per 9 innings pitched. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but Baseball Prospectus has determined the value of each extra framed strike as 0.14. A difference of 1.8 extra strikes per game would lower Burnett’s ERA and FIP by 0.25. So adjusting for the discrepancy in catchers Burnett would actually have a 3.62 ERA and a 3.71 FIP on the Pirates with Martin catching him. Of course there are additional benefits Burnett would enjoy if he was reunited with the Pirates, but the framing abilities of Russell Martin is the most obvious. I think there is enough evidence to support Burnett being at the very least a marginal upgrade to the rotation, and perhaps even a significant one.
The second question as to whether or not A.J. Burnett would be a reasonable acquisition is does the cost to acquire him make sense? As his contract is currently constructed…probably not. He is still owed somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million. But there are ways to make such an acquisition palatable. For starters any trade for Burnett would have to include the Phillies taking Jose Tabata in return. Tabata is owed roughly $10 million dollars on his contract. That is a lot of cash for the Pirates to be paying for a guy they have stashed in AAA. Dumping Tabata on the Phillies would offset a nice chunk of the money still owed to Burnett. The Phillies might also be willing to kick in a portion of Burnett’s salary depending on the quality of the prospect they demand. I certainly wouldn’t be willing to give up a high end prospect for A.J. But the Pirates have a deep enough farm system that they should have something expendable that would be enticing to the Phillies. It isn’t like the Phillies have that many options. There just are not that many destinations for Burnett. His no-trade clause is very limiting.
As strange as it seems the Pirates and Burnett may have come full circle. The Pirates and A.J. Burnett needed each other last offseason, and a few months apart has not changed that. I for one would welcome him back.