This afternoon, A.J. Burnett signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. If you’re looking for my reaction to the deal, you’re not going to find it here. I’ve spent plenty of time discussing my thoughts on Burnett. To sum it all up once again, I think the Pirates rotation looks good, and I don’t think Burnett was necessary to have a contending team. If you’re looking for more detail, there are plenty of articles I’ve written on Burnett this off-season.
Today I want to focus on what could turn out to be a very interesting case study during the 2014 season: the impact of park factors and defense on a pitcher.
As we know, Burnett came to the Pirates after struggling with the Yankees for two years. Almost immediately he saw success with the Pirates. Part of that success came due to his new approach, pitching more with his two-seam fastball, and focusing more on ground balls. Burnett saw his ground ball percentage go from 49% in 2011 to 56% in 2012 and 2013. That adjustment definitely led to Burnett’s turnaround, but I think PNC’s park dimensions, the defense behind Burnett, the defensive shifts, and Russell Martin’s pitch framing played just as big of a role.
People talk about park factors and defense all the time. The defensive shifts were a big topic this past year, as was the topic of pitch framing. But the general consensus is that all of these things are complementary to the skill of a pitcher. The focus is always on adding a talented pitcher, then boosting that talent with these “minor” upgrades. But what if we have it all reversed? What if it’s not so much about the talent of a pitcher, but it’s more about the situation a pitcher is in?
Let’s look at Burnett in 2011 and 2012 for a second.
2011: 5.15 ERA in 190.1 IP, 8.2 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9
2012: 3.51 ERA in 202.1 IP, 8.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9
Burnett remained a guy who got a lot of strikeouts. He improved his walk rate, probably because he increased his fastball percentage and focused on pounding the strike zone. His home runs went down, which was expected, since his 17% HR/FB ratio in 2011 was expected to regress, and was probably a result of Yankee Stadium. He also saw the drastic increase in ground balls. The change in his game played a role in all of this, but I think the defense and park factors helped more than people realize. Here are some numbers from the Yankees in 2011, and the Pirates in 2012.
BABIP on Ground Balls
Yankees: 6th highest in runs, 4th highest in HRs
Pirates: 28th highest in runs, 27th highest in HRs
The Yankees had a bad defense that allowed a lot of hits on ground balls, and a park that was one of the most hitter friendly in the majors. The Pirates had a good defense that didn’t allow many hits on ground balls, and a park that was one of the most pitcher friendly in the majors. If you don’t think that played a massive role in Burnett’s turnaround from 2011 to 2012, then you’re kidding yourself. Yes, Burnett made a key adjustment to focus more on ground balls, but that only played into the system. Burnett wouldn’t have had the same success with an increased number of ground balls in New York with the Yankees infield behind him.
If you’re interested, here are the numbers for the Phillies, based off the 2013 season.
GB BABIP: 28th
Park: 6th highest in runs, Highest overall in HRs
Burnett has basically rejoined the 2011 Yankees. He’s now pitching for a team that has horrible defense, horrible infield defense, and he’s pitching in an extreme hitter’s park. On top of that, the Phillies don’t do defensive shifts, and they don’t have good pitch framing catchers. We’re going to get the chance to see exactly how much the adjustments by Ray Searage helped Burnett, and how much the outside factors played a role. I’m not going to be surprised if Burnett puts up poor numbers in Philadelphia, and I think it will mostly be due to the park factors and the defense behind him.
You might say that Burnett would probably have success with the Pirates, due to their park factors, strong defense, pitch framing, and defensive shifts. I’d absolutely agree with that. But what if the success is largely based on all of those outside factors? Does it make sense to pay for a pitcher’s numbers if those numbers are a result of the park and defense more than the pitcher’s skill? Why would you pay for any pitcher if you can just plug the right guys into your current system and get good results?
Burnett is a popular revival for the Pirates. The other popular reclamation project is Francisco Liriano. He had a very similar situation. Here is the same study with Liriano.
2012 Stats: 5.34 ERA in 156.2 IP, 9.6 K/9, 5.0 BB/9, 1.1 HR/9
2013 Stats: 3.02 ERA in 161 IP, 9.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9
And here are the differences in park factors and defense.
2012 DE (MIN): 18th
2012 DE (CHW): 11th
2012 GB BABIP (MIN): 26th
2012 GB BABIP (CHW): 23rd
2012 Park Factors (MIN): 10th highest in runs, 14th highest in HRs
2012 Park Factors (CHW): 2nd highest in runs, 4th highest in HRs
Those aren’t as extreme across the board as Burnett, but they’re bad. Both had poor infield defenses. Minnesota had a poor defensive efficiency. The White Sox have an extreme hitter’s park. And then you have the Pirates in 2013:
GB BABIP: 5th
Park Factors: 24th highest in runs, 29th highest in HRs
Keep those numbers in mind for a bit, because there are some other pitchers to look at who don’t get the same attention as Liriano and Burnett, but who also saw massive turnarounds overnight after joining the Pirates.
2012 Stats: 5.73 ERA in 44 IP, 5.3 K/9, 3.9 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9
2013 Stats: 2.81 ERA in 73.2 IP, 5.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 0.4 HR/9
2012 DE: 28th
2012 GB BABIP: 30th
2012 Park Factors: 12th in runs, 16th in HR
2012 Stats: 5.96 ERA in 90.2 IP, 4.7 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9
2013 Stats: 3.35 ERA in 80.2 IP, 5.9 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9
2012 DE: 24th
2012 GB BABIP: 16th
2012 Park Factors: 21st in runs, 20th in HR
2012 Stats: 6.20 ERA in 45 IP, 8.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 1.6 HR/9
2013 Stats: 1.39 ERA in 71 IP, 8.9 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, 0.1 HR/9
2012 DE: 20th
2012 GB BABIP: 5th
2012 Park Factors: 3rd in runs, 10th in HR
That’s three more pitchers who had horrible numbers in 2012, then moved to PNC in 2013 and had great results. All three saw an increase in ground balls, just like the previous pitchers. Melancon went from 50% to 60%. Gomez went from 48% to 55%. Mazzaro went from 46% to 52%.
Mazzaro had a horrible defense, horrible infield defense, and was about middle of the pack in park factors. Gomez had a horrible defense, middle of the pack in infield defense, and bottom third in park factors. Melancon had a horrible defense, but a great infield defense. However, he had a huge hitter’s park, plus the AL East is full of hitter’s parks. Plus, Melancon’s biggest issues were the home runs, which totally disappeared in 2013 (that low rate is probably unsustainable, but he won’t get close to the 1.6 HR/9 again).
There’s a common trend with all of these pitchers.
1. Find guys who had a horrible defense, a horrible infield defense, and/or a hitter friendly park. Usually these pitchers will have the ability to get strikeouts, and get good ground ball rates.
2. Get those pitchers focusing more on getting ground balls and pounding the strike zone, thus increasing grounders, and cutting down on walks.
3. The increased ground balls plays into the team’s biggest strength, thus leading to much improved numbers.
The common argument against this is to point to guys like Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald, and talk about how not every pitcher will work out. The biggest difference I’ve noticed is that the pitchers who don’t work out are usually the ones who refuse to change any part of their game. Jonathan Sanchez, for example, did not get a lot of ground balls, and refused to make the requested adjustments that seemed to have worked for everyone else. That’s not a smart move for a pitcher, since you’re avoiding pitching into the team’s strength, which can only help your own numbers.
As I said before, I think there’s a good chance A.J. Burnett will struggle in Philadelphia, and if that happens, I think it will be largely due to the defense and the park. If we can pre-excuse him for that, then can’t we also suggest that his success was largely due to the Pirates’ defense and their park? You might argue that Burnett is a skilled pitcher, but what argument do you make for guys like Gomez and Mazzaro, who were in similar situations and saw the same massive improvements as Burnett?
So what if we do have it reversed? What if, instead of looking for the best possible talent, you just look for the right talent? Sometimes that can be as simple as a guy who gets ground balls and strikeouts, and would benefit more from pounding the strike zone, pitching to contact more, and getting a lot of forgiveness from his park and defense. I’m not saying Burnett is not a skilled pitcher. I’m not saying that all pitchers are just a product of their environments. What I’m saying is that I think the impact of the defense behind a pitcher, and the park that the pitcher plays in are both much bigger than we think.
Because we under-value defense and park factors, it makes the transformations from the pitchers above seem like flukes or good luck. And because we look at these pitchers as a string of good fortune, we dismiss the idea that the Pirates can just build a strong defense, take advantage of their park factors, and continue to find inexpensive pitchers who “surprisingly” put up strong numbers after coming to Pittsburgh. If that is indeed possible, then it would never make sense for the Pirates to spend a lot of money paying for pitching, or more specifically, a pitcher’s stats.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.