A.J. Burnett’s Career And Our Expectations

Fairly or unfairly, A.J. Burnett has always been saddled with a set of expectations that few pitchers could ever reach.

Perhaps one of the worst characteristics of sports culture is how easily we assign expectations and how even easier we assign the label of failure. We see a player who seems to have it all. In A.J. Burnett’s case, he was a young pitcher with a 95 MPH fastball. He had a curveball that other pitchers would die to have. He made batters routinely swing and miss. Stuff-wise, A.J. Burnett was one of those few pitchers who looked so blessed that he had to work in order to keep it under control.

As Burnett is completing his last season in the Major Leagues — at least that’s what he is saying right now — he has assumed a leadership position on the Pirates’ staff. Why wouldn’t he? He’s pitched for 17 years in the Major Leagues. He’s pitched for a World Series winning team and was a part of another World Series winning team. He’s thrown a no-hitter. During his 17 years, he’s led the Major Leagues in strikeouts (2008), shutouts (2002), and games started (2008 and 2014). And, in what looks to be his final season, A.J. Burnett has made his first All-Star game.

In other words, there isn’t much the right hander has left to accomplish in Major League Baseball. Yet, in spite of those accomplishments, it seems as if A.J. Burnett has been chasing a standard that could never be reached. He chased a standard that was put on him based on our expectations. And, because he was able to stay around the game long enough, he was the subject of ridicule and was viewed as a disappointment through much of his career. Many thought of him as the guy who just didn’t quite reach his potential.

That word — potential — is an interesting one. We throw it around on players who even give a glimmer of possible stardom. Rather than waiting to see what a player can do at the big league level, we put the label of “the next” one. J.D. Drew was supposed to be the next Mickey Mantle. Bryce Harper has that label now. Kris Bryant is another rookie who is being judged by our elite expectations. Carlos Correa is quickly approaching that expectation level.

The problem is that there are so few players who actually can be that elite level star. That makes sense, doesn’t it? The term elite, by it’s very nature should have the cannotation of being just a small, select group. Yet, we continue to put the label of potential and build unrealistic expectations for so many players. Need a recent example? Take the case of Stephen Strasburg.

Strasburg was the number one pick of the 2009 draft by the Washington Nationals. He was a dominant college pitcher and he was looked at as a savior for the then dormant Nationals’ franchise. He made a spectacular debut a year later, but then became one of the Tommy John Surgery club members. After a strict rehab, Strasburg returned for five starts during his age 22 season. Between the ages of 23 and 25, Strasburg has averaged 32 starts per season, 186 innings pitched, 157 hits allowed, 49 walks, and 210 strikeouts. That’s with a 3.10 ERA and 3.00 FIP. Yet, there are still analysts who call him a disappointment despite those above average statistics. We expected the 1968 version of Bob Gibson every season from the young Strasburg. Instead, he’s given us Bob Gibson from 1961 through 1963. Even Bob Gibson wasn’t the 1968 version every season.

Unrealistic expectations aren’t just limited to fans and media. The baseball industry has a habit of seeing an electric arm and overpaying based on the perceived potential. A.J. Burnett falls into this category. During his career, he has been signed to deals that priced him at $55 million for five years and $82.5 million for five years. Burnett would opt out of that first five year deal with the Blue Jays after the third season and sign the other five year pact with the Yankees. From 2006 through 2013, he would be paid like an elite starter. Burnett never carried himself in that way, but two teams paid him because of their perception of his potential. Their perception filtered into how fans and analysts would look at Burnett’s work and career. That lens cast an unrealistic view of his accomplishments.

Burnett was an eighth round pick in the 1995 draft by the New York Mets. Three years later, he was traded to the Florida Marlins in a deal that brought Al Leiter to New York. Burnett would have a typical Minor League experience as he was a high velocity, high strikeout guy who missed bats and the strike zone. But, the lure of that velocity would make him a top 20 prospect in the 2000 season. After a handful of Major League starts in 1999 and a few more in 2000, Burnett was up for good during the 2001 season. During his age 24 and 25 seasons, he showed promise, averaging 28 starts, 189 innings, 149 hits, 86 walks, and 166 strikeouts. Like the Minors, he would miss bats, but struggle a bit with the strike zone.

He would miss much of the 2003 season — the Marlins’ World Series season — recovering from surgery. But, he returned to form in 2004, making 19 starts to the tune of a 3.68 ERA (3.19 FIP). He would have an even better 2005 season, which also coincided with his first year of free agency eligibility.

Nothing in Burnett’s time with the Marlins spelled elite. He was certainly above average and a capable Major League pitcher. The numbers were solid — 3.78 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 8 strikeouts per nine innings, 14 complete games, and 8 shutouts. But, there were those 4 walks per nine innings and some periods of inconsistency. Despite the solid numbers and the fact that he was entering his age 29 season — a sort of tail end of one’s prime — the Blue Jays paid him $55 million during a time when second or third pitchers didn’t get paid $55 million. The expectation level was high because of his salary. The expectation level was high because the Blue Jays believed there was more. They saw elite level star.

They got a very good pitcher. In three seasons with the Blue Jays, Burnett would average a strikeout per inning, lower his walks per nine to 3.3, and make an average of 27 starts per year. He missed some starts due to injury, but his 3.94 ERA (3.82 FIP) was certainly good in an era of offensive domination and in a division where the game’s best offenses worked.

Yet, there was a feeling of relief when the Burnett opted out of his deal after the third season. Toronto was no longer on the hook for their “disappointing” signing. There were a long line of suitors, however, because teams loved the strikeout rate and still believed there was more potential in a now 32 year old arm. The Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in nearly two decades in 2008. That winter, they went on a spending spree, reeling in C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. They didn’t stop with the two stars and added Burnett on a five year $82.5 million deal. If Sabathia was the clear cut ace — he was — then Burnett would be a second ace.

From the beginning, expectations didn’t meet performance. As has always been the case with Burnett, more was expected. The Yankees did win the 2009 World Series with Burnett giving the Yankees more or less the same type of season he gave Toronto the year before — 207 innings, 197 hits, 4.04 ERA, and 195 strikeouts. It was a disappointment and there was thought of Burnett being a weak link in the playoff rotation. Despite producing a similar season as the one that preceded his signing, Burnett was now a guy who was overpaid, out of control, not dedicated, and a bust. Evidently, that’s what happens when a player doesn’t live up to the set of unrealistic expectations placed upon him by fans, media, and teams.

He would pitch two more seasons for the Yankees, making 65 starts over that time period with a poor 5.20 ERA, but a more palatable 4.80 FIP. While the results weren’t elite or becoming of a guy making $16.5 million per season, he gave the Yankees one thing that they still lack to this day — reliability. Burnett took the ball for each start and gave them at least 186 innings in each of his three seasons. There’s value in that, especially when many organizations have to go to their eighth or ninth best pitcher.

The Yankees gave away Burnett to the Pirates before the 2012 season, getting back two Minor Leaguers — Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno — who haven’t exactly made an impact for them. Since the 2012 season, Burnett has pitched for the Pirates (two tours) and the Phillies and has made at least 30 starts each season, pitched over 200 innings in two of the three seasons, and has pitched to a 3.54 ERA (3.37 FIP). While he has clearly benefited from the move to the National League, Burnett has quietly pitched at a high level. And, he is being recognized for it, as evidenced by his first All-Star selection this season. It’s funny how once the label of potential is removed that we can see things a bit more clearly. A.J. Burnett has been an above average pitcher for his 17 year career. Once we removed the blinders of potential, we can see reality.

The reality is this: Burnett has pitched for 17 seasons and 2,680 innings. He’s pitched to a 3.95 ERA (3.84 FIP) that was mostly compiled during Baseball’s PED era. His 2,464 strikeouts are currently more than all but 34 pitchers in Major League Baseball history. He was a key member of a World Series winning team and has thrown a no-hitter.

None of that sounds disappointing or the career of someone who underachieved. Luckily, Burnett has endured long enough for people to realize that he has put together the type of career that very few pitchers can lay claim to. It isn’t the Hall of Fame career that many thought and it wasn’t even one that was completely dominant. But, it was spectacular in its own right. He was given an expectation level based on what others thought was his ceiling. He was judged by that and by the salary paid based on that perceived ceiling.

That’s not his fault. That’s on us. We spent a bunch of years thinking there should be more, rather than recognizing the talent it took to compete at a high level for so long. Thankfully, the latter part of his career forced us to remove the label and see things for what they’ve always been — a good pitcher who continually takes the ball every fifth day.

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