A.J. Burnett, Best Pitcher Available

Doug Pensinger

Forget Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, A.J. Burnett is the best pitcher–and player-still available on the free-agent market.

When news broke on Tuesday that A.J. Burnett was open to pitching for a team other than the Pirates in 2014, it’s fair to say that more than one GM around the league raised an eager eyebrow or two. After all, Burnett has been one of the better pitchers in baseball since 2012, something that might be lost on fans who remember his days in Yankee pinstripes.

Indeed, since moving to Pittsburgh two years ago, Burnett has excelled, changing his approach and thriving in more ways than one. He finished the 2013 season with a 3.30 ERA, a 2.80 FIP, and 4.0 WAR in 191.0 innings pitched despite turning 36 in January. Once injury prone, Burnett has been quite durable in recent seasons, throwing at least 185 innings every year dating all the way back to 2007.

In Pittsburgh, Burnett thrived with a sinker-heavy approach, incorporating the pitch more and more into his arsenal until it was his primary weapon in 2013. That offering, combined with a curveball that ranked first overall in terms of pitch value last season, has helped Burnett post the second-best groundball rate in baseball since 2012 (56.5%).

While much has been made of Burnett’s sinker (and for good reason), the right-hander’s curveball has been even more essential to his success. According to Baseball Prospectus, Burnett’s uncle Charlie generated the second-most groundballs per ball in play of any pitcher last season at a remarkable 68%. The offering held opponents to an .054 ISO in the process.

Despite producing loads of groundballs in a Pirate uniform, though, Burnett has also maintained his ability to strike opposing hitters out. His 26.1% strikeout rate was ninth-highest in the majors last year. Such prowess in generating groundballs and garnering strikeouts put Burnett in rare company in 2013, as he, Felix Hernandez, and Stephen Strasburg were the only pitchers in baseball to rank among the top 10 in both groundball and strikeout rate.

All of this bodes well for Burnett’s free agent prospects. The 15-year veteran has reinvented himself, while also maintaining what made him successful in the first place. The fact he has no draft pick compensation and won’t be looking for a long-term commitment in the four to five-year range only makes Burnett a more attractive option when compared with other available starters like Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana.

Considering his consistent success since the start of 2012, Burnett comes with far fewer question marks attached to him than either Jimenez or Santana, who both struggled mightily as recently as a year ago. While the Pirates have expressed a desire to bring Burnett back throughout the offseason, one would expect multiple other teams to show an interest. In fact, Burnett might be just the type of shorter-term, lower-cost option that teams like the Orioles and Blue Jays have been waiting for. Unwilling to commit big money or multiple years to guys like Jimenez and Santana, Burnett would look awfully good at the top of the rotation in either Baltimore (near where he resides in the offseason) or Toronto.

In a lot of ways Burnett represents a safe option for any team looking to acquire starting pitching. He has become the rare type of starter who gets both groundballs and strikeouts, and given his performance since 2012, he comes with very few question marks.

Sure, maybe he struggles when not pitching in front of a Pirates defense that gobbles up groundballs. Maybe he can’t pitch in the more rugged confines of the American League. Maybe his age will start to catch up with him. But to me, these questions are far less worrisome than the doubts facing Santana or Jimenez’s future prospects.

In fact, it turns out Burnett put himself into some pretty good company with his performance in 2013. According to Baseball Reference’s Play Index, since 1916, starting pitchers who are 36 or older have posted a strikeout rate above 25% just 22 times. It never hurts to be on a list in which the likes of Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling are prominent:

Rk Player SO Year Age Tm GS IP ERA ERA+ HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1 Randy Johnson 372 2001 37 ARI 34 249.2 2.49 188 19 .203 .274 .309 .583 50
2 Randy Johnson 347 2000 36 ARI 35 248.2 2.64 181 23 .224 .288 .356 .643 63
3 Randy Johnson 334 2002 38 ARI 35 260.0 2.32 195 26 .208 .273 .346 .619 59
4 Nolan Ryan 301 1989 42 TEX 32 239.1 3.20 124 17 .187 .275 .283 .557 56
5 Randy Johnson 290 2004 40 ARI 35 245.2 2.60 176 18 .197 .241 .315 .557 .44
6 Steve Carlton 286 1982 37 PHI 38 295.2 3.10 119 17 .232 .288 .337 .624 77
7 Steve Carlton 275 1983 38 PHI 37 283.2 3.11 116 20 .258 .313 .359 .672 92
8 Nolan Ryan 270 1987 40 HOU 34 211.2 2.76 142 14 .200 .284 .292 .576 60
9 Nolan Ryan 232 1990 43 TEX 30 204.0 3.44 114 18 .188 .267 .322 .590 65
10 R.A. Dickey 230 2012 37 NYM 33 233.2 2.73 139 24 .226 .278 ..362 .640 .81
11 Nolan Ryan 228 1988 41 HOU 33 220.0 3.52 94 18 .227 .304 .347 .652 96
12 Roger Clemens 218 2004 41 HOU 33 214.1 2.98 145 15 .217 .292 .329 .621 64
13 Roger Clemens 213 2001 38 NYY 33 220.1 3.51 128 19 246 .309 .375 .683 79
14 A.J. Burnett 209 2013 36 PIT 30 191.0 3.30 107 11 .231 .304 .335 .639 87
15 Nolan Ryan 203 1991 44 TEX 27 173.0 2.91 140 12 .172 .263 .285 .548 53
16 John Smoltz 197 2007 40 ATL 32 205.2 3.11 140 18 .249 .293 .375 .669 77
17 Nolan Ryan 197 1984 37 HOU 30 183.2 3.04 109 12 .212 .286 .305 .591 78
18 Curt Schilling 194 2003 36 ARI 24 168.0 2.95 159 17 .230 .270 .358 .628 61
19 Nolan Ryan 194 1986 39 HOU 30 178.0 3.34 107 14 .188 .283 .314 .597 72
20 Roger Clemens 192 2002 39 NYY 29 180.0 4.35 102 18 .250 .317 .397 .714 89
21 Nolan Ryan 183 1983 36 HOU 29 196.1 2.98 114 9 .195 .300 .277 .577 71
22 Steve Carlton 179 1981 36 PHI 24 190.0 2.42 151 9 .222 .286 .310 .596 70
23 Orlando Hernandez 164 2006 40 TOT 29 162.1 4.66 96 22 .252 .329 .445 .774 102

Burnett’s velocity has hardly diminished, and he finished with the best strikeout rate of his career in 2013, while generating oodles of groundballs. Since the start of 2012, he has a higher strikeout rate than David Price, a better FIP than Yu Darvish, and a better xFIP than Max Scherzer. Add in the fact he comes without a draft pick attached to him, and there is no denying that Burnett is the best pitcher and player left on the free agent market.

. . .

All statistics, including WAR figures, courtesy of FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

Alex Skillin is a writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score and also contributes to SB Nation's MLB newsdesk. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.

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