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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

Burnett deal makes Pirates better club

Leach: Burnett deal makes Bucs better club

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Burnett deal makes Pirates better club

MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

They're sighing with relief in New York, and probably not real sure what to make of things in Pittsburgh. But however it may appear, the Pirates got better when they acquired A.J. Burnett.

He's not a headline-grabber, at least not in the good sense. But he provides the Pirates something they desperately need, and he's likely to put up better numbers in his new home than he did in his old one.

The primary appeal for the Pirates is durability. It may seem curious to cite Burnett as a stalwart, but after injury issues early in his career, he's recently been quite durable. After topping 180 innings twice in his first nine years, he's gone over that mark four straight times, including 200-plus seasons in 2008 and 2009. There's real value in that.

And there's particular value for the Pirates, who didn't see a single pitcher reach even 175 innings in 2011. As a result, what was a very reliable bullpen in the early going faded significantly in the second half. The Bucs' top four relievers, Joel Hanrahan, Daniel McCutchen, Chris Resop and Jose Veras, saw a drastic falloff in their performance in the second half.

Those four pitchers had a combined ERA of 2.40 and WHIP of 1.13 before the All-Star Game. After the break, those numbers ballooned to 4.88 and 1.54. Each of the four saw his ERA and WHIP rise in the second half, after each threw at least 40 innings in the first half. If Burnett allows the bullpen to work even a little less every fifth day, he's a worthwhile addition. Pittsburgh's second-half fade in 2011 likely would have been less severe if the bullpen hadn't been worn down.

"There isn't a team in baseball that wouldn't want to add another starting pitcher," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recently said. "And we also have some questions about our fourth, fifth starters."

But it's not just innings. Burnett has a real shot at being more effective than the conventional wisdom would suggest as well. Not brilliant, not spectacular, but plenty decent.

From 2004-09, Burnett was basically a consistently effective pitcher from year to year. He had an ERA better than the league average in each of those six seasons, even though the last four of them he spent pitching in the American League East. There's a reason the guy got two big contracts.

It's only in the past two years that his effectiveness really waned. And even then, the competition was a big factor. Burnett's ERA over the past two seasons was an unsightly 5.20. However, if you remove AL East opponents, it drops to a more respectable 4.60 -- not terrible for a man pitching half his home games in Yankee Stadium, and facing a designated hitter in every lineup.

Oddly, by the way, Burnett was much less effective on the road than in New York over the past two seasons, which doesn't really fit the new ballpark's reputation as a bandbox. Still, Pittsburgh is a friendlier place to pitch than the Bronx. And the level of competition is going to drop. While the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers all have solid offenses, it's nothing like handling the on-base machines of the Red Sox or the homer-happy Blue Jays.

"For some reason, some pitchers have a track record of picking it up after they leave New York," Hurdle said. "[Carl] Pavano, [Javier] Vazquez, probably some others before them."

There are warning signs, to be sure. Burnett's fastball velocity has dropped in each of the past four seasons, from 95.1 miles per hour in 2007 all the way to a career-low 92.7 in 2011. That's disconcerting from any pitcher, but especially from one who just turned 35. And as the velocity has dropped, so has the effectiveness. Fangraphs.com shows Burnett's fastball as having been worth a staggering negative 50 runs over the past two seasons. That's worrying.

His curveball and changeup, however, seem to be more or less as effective as ever. And aside from his fastball, there's no one negative trend that seems to encapsulate what's been wrong with Burnett. Batters made less contact when they swung at his pitches in 2011 than they did in 2010 or 2009, and about the same as in 2008. He was in the strike zone much less in 2011, but in his similarly frustrating 2010, he found the zone plenty often.

All of which is to say that overall, there's no clear indication that Burnett has completely lost it, or that hitters have figured him out. A new environment, a new set of opposing hitters, a friendlier ballpark and a less taxing division should do him a world of good. And even if he doesn't improve a great deal, simply getting through the sixth inning on a regular basis will represent an upgrade in itself.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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