The Lost Generation – Part 1, Sean Burnett

The Pirates’ starting rotation has contained highly touted, homegrown arms Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm for a few years now.
Several years ago, the Pirates had another group of promising young pitchers, each selected in the first round in a three year period. Sean Burnett (2000), John Van Benschoten (2001) and Bryan Bullington (2002) we once hailed as the future nucleus of the big league rotation, but injuries have caused the trio to be passed on the organizational depth chart. Now that all three are healthy enough to pitch, what can we expect from the Lost Generation of pitching prospects?
In a three part series, I will examine what the future may hold for each member of the Lost Generation.
Sean Burnett
Age: 24 Throws: L HT: 6-1 WT: 176
Burnett was selected 19th overall in the 2000 amateur draft out of Wellington High School in Florida. Burnett was sort of a rare breed among first round prep arms, as he was selected on the basis of his plus changeup, advanced breaking ball and outstanding control as opposed to an overpowering fastball.
Burnett’s polish was evident in his professional debut :
(2000, Gulf Coast League Pirates)
IP      ERA    K/9    BB/9    H/9    HR/9
31    4.06    6.97   0.87    9.00   0.00
Burnett showed an advanced approach for a high school draftee, displaying control as well as a tendency to keep the ball on the ground and in the park.
2001 brang more of the same at Low-A Hickory:
IP         ERA    K/9    BB/9    H/9    HR/9
161.1  2.62   7.48    1.84     9.15     0.61
That Burnett, a control artist with an advanced changeup, had success against young, raw players who likely handn’t seen quality secondary pitches before, should come as no surprise. Burnett continued to display very good control and the ability to induce grounders, while fooling enough hitters to keep a solid K rate. For his performance, Burnett was named the Pirates 2001 Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
2002 brought more success and accolades for Burnett as he moved up the organizational ladder:
(2002, High-A Lynchburg)
IP          ERA    K/9    BB/9    H/9    HR/9
155.1  1.80    5.56    1.91     6.84     0.23
The ERA is pristine, but it is at Lynchburg that we start to see some deterioration in Burnett’s strikeout rate, as the lefty struck out nearly 2 fewer hitters per 9 innings. Given Burnett’s repetoire, which relies heavily on offspeed and breaking stuff to complement a high-80′s fastball, the drop should have been expected, though it is still troubling. Also of note is the extremely low hit rate. I do not have the BABIP (batting average in balls in play) data, but it would appear that Burnett got rather “hit lucky” at Lynchburg; BABIP for pitchers at the major league level is around .300, and is typically higher in the minor leagues as a result of inferior defense. On the positive side, Burnett continued to paint the corners effectively and keep the ball in the park. Burnett was again named the Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2002, as well as the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year. Baseball America ranked Burnett as the Pirates’ #2 prospect, and the #1 prospect in the Carolina League.
2003 Brought a promotion to AA Altoona, where Burnett had continued success, but the K rate once again declined:
IP          ERA    K/9    BB/9    H/9    HR/9
159.2  3.21    4.85    1.63    8.91     0.11
Burnett was again effective, but his K rate continued to decline, and his hit rate was more along the lines of what could be expected. Despite Burnett’s lack of punchouts, Baseball America again named Burnett as the #2 prospect in the Pirates organization, though the folks at BA worried about the lack of K’s:
” Burnett has outstanding control and keeps the ball in the park….Burnett’s other pitches offset that his fastball sits in the 85-88 MPH range. His low strikeout rate hasn’t hurt him yet, but it could be a factor when he reaches the majors.”
BA’s comment seemed prophetic in 2004, with a promotion to AAA Nashville:
IP       ERA    K/9    BB/9    H/9    HR/9
47    5.36    4.79    3.26    11.11    0.96
Burnett’s strikeout rate remained mediocre, but ’04 also brought an increase in his walk rate. It seems likely that Burnett “nibbled” around the strike zone more than he had at the lower levels; he probably realized that he would get hit hard by leaving the ball in the zone with such frequency in AAA. Despite an impressive stint at Nashville, Burnett made his major-league debut in 2004:
IP       ERA    K/9    BB/9   H/9    HR/9
71.2  5.02   3.77    3.52   10.80   1.13
Burnett got off to a hot start, but the league caught up fairly quickly, and he found himself being shelled on a fairly regular basis. Burnett maintained a respectable walk rate, but the strikeout rate fell to dangerously low levels.
After a particularly gruesome start against St. Louis on August 21st ( 4 IP, 8 ER), it was clear that Burnett was not right physically. He was eventually diagnosed with a torn ligament in his elbow. Burnett underwent Tommy John Surgery in September of ’04.
Injury once again befell Burnett as he was close to returning to the mound. Burnett experienced shoulder problems and underwent labrum surgery, knocking him out until spring training 2006.
Burnett returned to AAA in 2006 (this time at Indianapolis) and was somewhat shaky:
IP         ERA    K/9    BB/9    H/9    HR/9
120.1  5.16   3.44    3.44    10.17    0.97
It was to be expected that Burnett would be rusty coming off of the “double whammy” of Tommy John and labrum surgery. Many pitchers that have major elbow surgery show a pronounced lack of command in their first year back in action, so Burnett’s walk rate was somewhat promising. Still, he wasn’t fooling anyone and got cuffed around as a result. The ball was leaving the park with more regularity, and righthanders teed off on Burnett to the tune of .321/.386/.476 (BA/OBP/SLG).
Burnett pitched well in spring training this past spring, but was assigned to Indianapolis once again, much to Burnett’s displeasure.
(2007, Indianapolis)
IP       ERA    K    BB    H    HR
67     4.16   28   35    79     4
Burnett’s ERA is superficially better, but it’s fairly evident that he has’t pitched well at all. He has walked 7 more batters than he has struck out, and his given up hits with a Duke-like frequency. The lack of control in Burnett’s second year back from surgery is also disappointing.
Overall, the future does not look promising for Sean Burnett. Strikeout rate is quite possibly the best indicator of a pitcher’s success, and Burnett’s strikeout rate just isn’t very good. To boot, Burnett appears to have 1.) left some off his control on the operating table 2.) been forced to work around the strike zone more, because what he does throw down the pipe gets smashed or 3.) both.
The best-case scenario for Burnett as a starter is a Casey Fossum-type existence of limiting walks and holding one’s breath whenever anything crosses the upper part of the strike zone. However, given Burnett’s slight stature and past arm troubles, it seems unlikely that Burnett will ever become a competent major league starter. Given his lefthandedness and his decent offspeed stuff, maybe he can spin a career as a left-handed specialist.

Author: Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.

Share This Post On
  • mike battle

    Bobby Bradley was drafted in 1999 and was better than everyone of those picks. His stuff was electric. The best curveball ive ever seen and ive been around the game for 40 years. The Pirates made him throw with a torn ligament for a year which caused a number of injuries including nerve damage to were he couldnt even open up his hand. Rumor has it, hes on the Professional Long Drive tour now. Sad to see such a talent get used and abused like all the previous draft picks. All these kids are under 27 too. The Pirates have ruined 15 million in fresh arms from signing bounuses