Although as of this moment no AJ Burnett trade has been completed, I was curious to see how AJ could be expected to perform if he does end up getting traded to Pittsburgh . After a solid 2009, Burnett has put together 2 nightmarishly awful seasons in the Bronx. His fastball velocity has declined, his command has deteriorated, and he has given up what would appear to be an unsustainable amount of home runs (or at least it would appear unsustainable if he didn’t do it two years in a row).
AJ’s poor performance these past two seasons has been reflected in his high ERA, over 5 both in 2010 and 2011. If you only looked at AJ’s peripherals and adjusted his abnormal home run/flyball rate, as xFIP does, his performance suddenly looks a lot better, with a 4.49 xFIP in 2010 and 3.86 in 2011. Of course, as we know very well normalizing HR/FB rate for pitchers as xFIP does glosses over the fact that certain pitchers (such as Matt Cain) tend to be exceptionally good at maintaining a below-average HR/FB ratio, while others such as Burnett are consistently bad in this area. As such, it would be overly simplistic (and quite frankly, incorrect) to say that Burnett has been unlucky with homers over the past few seasons.
I was curious to see how much of AJ’s homer-prone nature could be attributed to the launching pad that is Yankee stadium, and if he might be expected to improve in that area when he moves to a different home stadium. AJ’s home/road splits don’t necessarily support that contention, as he gave up about 17 home runs per 100 fly balls both at home and on the road in 2011 (the number was actually slightly higher on the road). However, maybe a good portion of his road games were in hitter-friendly parks, so maybe that could be an explanation for his poor road numbers.
Looking at ESPN’s park factors, it is evident that AJ did pitch in a lot of hitter-friendly parks. Yankee Stadium has the 4th-highest park factor for home runs (1.267, meaning home runs were 26.7% more prevalent than at a neutral park), and is joined in the top 10 by the Rogers Center (6th) and Camden Yards (8), both division rivals whom the Yankees face off against frequently. Fenway and Tropicana are both below average for home runs, which is not surprising for Tropicana, but is somewhat for Fenway given its hitter-friendly reputation. With 3 homer-happy parks in the division plus several of the league’s best scoring offenses, it is not surprising that Burnett’s position in the AL East may have contributed to some of his struggles.
How would Burnett’s situation improve by moving to the NL Central? To start, by looking at park factors, PNC park is actually one of the toughest places to hit a home run, suppressing homers by more than 20 percent. However, the NL Central does have two very homer-friendly parks in Great American Ballpark (Cincinnati) and Minute Maid Park (Houston), which would potentially work to Burnett’s disadvantage. Busch Stadium (St. Louis) is a homer-suppressing field like PNC.
Interestingly though, by looking at hit tracker, it doesn’t look like PNC’s dimensions would have prevented many of AJ’s Yankee Stadium home runs. As you can see from the picture below, there are two in left-center that appear to hit the wall. AJ gave up 16 home runs at Yankee stadium last year, and by doing this overlay it looks like 14 of them would have left the yard in Pittsburgh anyway. Of course, park factors are about more than just dimensions. They could include environmental factors such as wind, air density, and temperature, so it is possible that these other factors, rather than Yankee Stadium’s short porch, contributed to AJ’s home run problems.
On paper, however, there are several reasons why Burnett’s performance could be better in 2012. He will be moving to a less hitter-friendly home park, changing leagues to the DH-less NL, and facing a division that has seen the exodus of two big sluggers in Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols (plus Ryan Braun’s suspension for 50 games). The NL Central looks to be a pretty weak division this year, and even though it has two very hitter-friendly parks, it lacks the elite offensive talent that exists in the AL East.
The overall conclusion from these analyses is that Burnett’s home run problems are not likely to be cured simply by switching stadiums. The vast majority of his Yankee Stadium home runs were long and high enough to go out at PNC Park. However, the change in league and opposition could allow him to have some success, and I would expect him to lower his home run rate somewhat for those reasons (as well as other environmental factors that make PNC more pitcher-friendly). I don’t expect him to be a world-beater next season, but I think AJ could put together a solid performance next year for Pittsburgh if his head is in the game.
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