In Moshe’s post analyzing Ken Rosenthal’s piece comparing A.J. Burnett to Josh Beckett — which inspired a deeper analysis of A.J. Burnett through the lens of PitchFX this past Thursday — I was also struck by commenter T.O. Chris‘ look at the duo’s more advanced numbers, which in turn compelled me to want to take an even deeper look myself.
As Moshe noted, Ronsenthal’s uncomplicated analysis looked at both pitchers’ W-L records (meaningless), ERA (somewhat instructive) and opponents’ OPS (meh). Here are Burnett’s and Beckett’s career numbers across 14 different categories, with the leader highlighted in yellow:
If you asked most fans, I think they’d tell you without question that Josh Beckett is better than A.J. Burnett (because it’s true); however, I don’t know that most fans would realize quite how close the two pitchers really are.
Their numbers are very very close across the board, with Burnett surrendering less home runs per nine innings and getting more ground balls, which in turn has helped him to a lower BAA and BABIP than Beckett. Looking at the chart above, the primary difference — and one of the main factors that have kept A.J. Burnett from ever being a true #1 — lies in the walk rate, as Beckett has walked a full batter less per nine (2.77) during his career than Burnett has (3.78). That’s why Beckett has a slight edge in FIP, despite surrendering home runs more frequently.
Here are their career pitch values, per Fangraphs:
The differences between the two pitchers become much clearer after reviewing the relative successes and failures of their pitching arsenals. Burnett has historically been known as a two-pitch pitcher (fastball and curve), who occasionally throws a sinker and very rarely a changeup to keep hitters honest. As we know, Burnett’s bread-and-butter throughout his career has been the curve, which abandoned him last season.
Beckett has a more complete arsenal, mixing his four-seamer with a two-seamer, curveball, cutter and changeup. Clearly his assorted fastballs have served him quite well during his career, while his curveball and chanege aren’t too shabby themselves.
Since Fangraphs doesn’t include pitchers in its wonderful WAR graphs feature for some reason, I’ve taken the liberty of creating my own versions for your viewing enjoyment:
Once again, both pitchers are rather closely intertwined, though Beckett wins out once again, as his six best seasons are each superior to Burnett’s six best. However, this is slightly misleading, as it’s not like Burnett’s never had a better season than Beckett — A.J. out-fWARed Beckett in 2001 (of course, that was Beckett’s first season), 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2008. But it does underscore both how good Beckett has been, and how much better he’s been than Burnett when Beckett’s at his best.
The cumulative WAR by age graph is really no contest. While the pitchers are only separated by 1.7 fWAR for their careers, Beckett got a head start by breaking into the Majors at his age 21 season, and he’s also accrued his FWAR total in three less seasons than the 33-year-old Burnett. Expect this table to grow even further lopsided as time elapses.
In any event, my takeaway from this is that A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett are indeed quite a bit more similar than public perception might lead one to believe; although Josh Beckett is obviously a more complete pitcher, whose numbers support the “ace” tag — even if he hasn’t always quite pitched like one during his tenure in Boston — and he has clearly been the superior pitcher during both players’ careers.
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