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Grudge Match: Burnett vs. Lackey

From the "Yeah, and I'd Like a Pony" files, John Lackey has said he would like to receive a deal that exceeds A.J. Burnett's in both yearly salary and length. Last offseason, Burnett signed a five-year, $82.5MM deal with the Yankees, which pays him a cool $16.5MM per year. Exceeding that deal would almost certainly put Lackey into the rarefied $100 million air currently occupied only by C.C. Sabathia, Johan Santana, and Barry Zito

Many laughed when they heard what Lackey was asking for. But then I looked at the numbers, and that's when the comparison began to seem apt.

Burnett is nearly two years older than Lackey, so when Burnett signed his contract he was about nine months older than Lackey would be at a comparable time. Give a slight advantage to Lackey on that count.

Next, the numbers. I have compared their careers up to the offseason in which they sought the big deal. Here are the results:

Burnett 1376.3 1278 568 23 60 122 3.81
Lackey 1501 1201 441 19 73 151 3.90

Lackey has pitched more innings, but Burnett had a slightly better FIP. Some of this is attributable to their home stadiums. While Lackey has toiled in the approximately neutral stadium in Anaheim, Burnett enjoyed the wide open spaces in Florida, and to a lesser extent, Toronto. But often career numbers can be misleading--they overinclude data that aren't particularly relevant to the comparison at hand. So what about a weighted average (5-4-3, natch) of the three seasons leading up to the deal?

Burnett 181.3 184 68 2 10 19 3.78
Lackey 184 146 46 1 10 20 3.94

Burnett starts to distance himself from Lackey a little bit. Neither was the paragon of perfect health, although Burnett was likely helped by his 224 inning campaign in 2008 and durability that it showed. Burnett struck out and walked more batters. Another advantage Burnett has over Lackey is his ratio of ground balls to fly balls, with the latter besting the former by a margin of 1.55-1.21 for their careers.

Other than those minor differences, however, these pitchers are very similar. Should Lackey get more money than Burnett? No, I don't think so. But you never get what you don't ask for, so Lackey (or perhaps more accurately, his agent, Steve Hilliard) made a wise comparison and then tacked on a little bit. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Lackey earn more than $15MM per year, and if he could be had at that price for fewer than five years, I think it'd be a bargain.

The Yankees have met with Lackey and appear unlikely to pursue him. However, given the paucity of front-line starters on the free agent market, he could go to the first team to get frustrated with the Roy Halladay whale hunt.