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A.J. Burnett, Pirates agree to generate more ground balls again

Burnett takes less money to go back to a friendly place.

Tag team back to the Pirates
Tag team back to the Pirates
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Burnett has kicked off the pitcher-signing dominoes by agreeing to a 1 year/$8.5 million contract with the Pirates, although I doubt he was considered the "first" domino.

It doesn't sound like other clubs were waiting for Burnett's domino to fall before moving on. It's doubtful there's any kind of chain reaction. Enough about dominoes.

Here's Dave Cameron's take on the deal. Dave's main claim is that Burnett is no longer the guy he was, but that doesn't matter much because the Pirates will be paying him to be the guy he is, not the guy he was. Why can't Burnett return to being the guy that he was, aside from aging and time travel and such? Look here:

GB% FIP-
Yankees 2011 49.20% 115
Pirates 2012 56.90% 93
Pirates 2013 56.50% 77
Phillies 2014 50.90% 112

This looks like two things. First, Burnett with the Pirates found a way to generate a consistently greater number of ground balls. Two, he performed much better while generating that higher rate of ground balls. You'd think that Burnett threw a higher rate of sinkers while with the Pirates. Not quite. Behold:

aj burnett usage chart

Burnett did indeed increase his sinker usage when he went to the Pirates, but he increased his sinker usage even more when he went to the Phillies. Maybe Burnett upped his sinker rate in an attempt to generate MORE ground balls to account for the hitter-friendly environs and worse team defense? Unfortunately, that didn't work out. The Pirates ranked 6th in DRS in 2014, while the Phillies ranked 25th. UZR sees the two teams as equally poor defensively, but I'm willing to give a pass because of the Pirates' extensive use of shifts. Some of the negative value of the Pirates' UZR lies with the outfield.

I'm not saying Burnett will be the 4-fWAR pitcher he was in 2013. That was a pretty high strikeout rate he had that year. Also, Burnett's walk rate jumped in 2014. That was due mainly to inducing a lower rate of swings outside the strike zone and throwing fewer first pitch strikes.; he didn't necessarily throw more out-of-the-zone pitches. Burnett's walk rate with the Pirates looks more like an outlier than the norm, but consider the following:

1) Burnett generated a very stable rate of ground balls with the Pirates

2) Burnett had a very stable usage pattern both years for the Pirates, a pattern that was different than any other point in his career

3) Burnett threw a stable rate of first pitch strikes with the Pirates, a rate higher than any other point in his career

4) Burnett had the lowest walk rate of his career with the Pirates since 2006

I'm willing to concede that the influence of the Pirates, whether it be their pitching coach, their analytics department, their stadium, their shifting strategy, Russell Martin, or a combination of all of them, was enough to squeeze out better performance from Burnett than the Yankees or Phillies were capable of getting.

Having said all of that, there is one red flag, something that was static with the Pirates but fell with the Phillies: Velocity.

aj burnett velocity chart

If there's any reason why Burnett couldn't return to form with the Pirates, this is it. This is probably the main reason why he wouldn't return to being a 4-fWAR pitcher. Nonetheless, if the Pirates don't get Russell Martin back, they still have Francisco Cervelli, who is known to be a good pitch framer. Given all the other factors, Burnett has a good shot at being a 2-3 fWAR pitcher for the Pirates, which is a pretty good investment for $8.5 million.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

Kevin Ruprecht is an Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.