JAWS and the 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot: A.J. Burnett

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2021 BBWAA Candidate: A.J. Burnett
Player Pos Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS W-L IP SO ERA ERA+
A.J. Burnett SP 28.8 21.7 25.3 164-157 2731.1 2513 3.99 104
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

A.J. Burnett’s stuff was never in doubt. The owner of a mid-90s fastball and a devastating knuckle curve that he threw from multiple arm slots, he could make batters look foolish and miss bats aplenty, but his command and control were another matter. When Burnett no-hit the Padres as a member of the Marlins on May 12, 2001, he walked nine batters — the most by a pitcher ever in a nine-inning no-no — and hit another.

Burnett spent parts of 17 seasons (1999–2015) in the majors with the Marlins, Blue Jays, Yankees, Pirates, and Phillies. He struck out at least 190 hitters in a season half a dozen times, led his league in strikeouts per nine twice, played a key role in helping New York win a World Series and in ending an epic postseason drought in Pittsburgh, and went through an impressive late-career reinvention there that culminated with his only All-Star berth in the final year of his career. Yet he also ranked among the league’s top 10 in walk rate nine times, leading once and placing second twice. Three times he led his league in wild pitches and once in hit batsmen. From his tattoos and nipple rings to his penchant for self-immolation on the mound, he earned an unenviable reputation by the middle of his career.

“When his head’s not right, then his body won’t follow. But his head goes first. Then his body gets all out of whack,” Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland bluntly told ESPN’s Johnette Howard in 2010, as Burnett suddenly devolved into yet another pitcher who couldn’t handle the Bronx. It took a change of scenery and mastery of a two-seam fastball to get his career back on track. Once he did, he became a favorite of teammates and fans — an outcome that at one point appeared so remote.

Allan James Burnett was born on January 3, 1977 in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He played mostly third base at Central Arkansas Christian High School, and when he pitched a bit during his junior year, “more of his pitches ended up at the backstop than in the strike zone,” wrote ESPN Magazine’s Eric Adelson in 2001. Filling in for a teammate in a key game as a senior, he broke through, and the Mets chose him in the eighth round of the 1995 draft; he signed for a $60,000 bonus. By FanGraphs’ version of WAR — which at 42.5 is well beyond the value estimate of Baseball-Reference’s version (28.8) — he’s the most valuable eight-round pick ever, though Paul Goldschmidt will soon surpass him.

Burnett struggled with his control and his temper from the outset of his professional carer, walking 77 batters (but striking out 94) in 91.2 innings in his first two seasons. He began harnessing his stuff after coming under the tutelage of Pittsfield Mets pitching coach Bob Stanley (the former Red Sox reliever) in 1997. Via Adelson, Stanley once sent Burnett back to the mound with bloody knuckles after Burnett had repeatedly punched a dugout ceiling in anger; he struck out the side.

In February 1998, Burnett was traded to the Marlins — who were in the process of tearing apart their World Series-winning roster — as part of the Al Leiter deal. Despite missing the first seven weeks of the season due to a broken right hand suffered while playing catch (he was protecting himself from an errant throw), he made an indelible impression with his performance at A-level Kane County, posting a 1.97 ERA with 14.1 strikeouts per nine in 119 innings. The performance rocketed him to No. 21 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list; the publication lauded his stuff (mid-90s fastball that touched 97, two other average or better pitches) and his makeup (“not afraid to make a mistake, loves to challenge hitters and won’t back down… willingness to make adjustments and correct mistakes on his own”).

Promoted to Double-A Portland, Burnett struggled, with high walk and homer rates pushing his ERA to 5.52, but he responded well to a detour to the bullpen, and the Marlins called him up to debut on August 17, 1999. He threw 5.2 innings and allowed one run in beating the Dodgers, the first of seven starts over which he posted a 3.84 ERA but walked 5.4 per nine.

Expected to make the Marlins out of spring training in 2000, Burnett ruptured a ligament in his right thumb and was sidelined until July 20. He pitched quite well initially but faded in September, finishing with a 4.79 ERA in 82.2 innings. He continued to develop over the next two seasons, throwing that ugly 129-pitch no-hitter against the Padres in just his second start off the disabled list following a right foot fracture (suffered after he stepped in a gutter while bowling, naturally).

Burnett enjoyed a significant breakout in 2002, when he posted a 3.30 ERA and struck out 203 in 204.1 innings while leading the NL in shutouts (five), hit and homer rates (6.7 and 0.5 per nine, respectively) and wild pitches (14). His usage was heavy even in the context of the time; his 12 outings with at least 120 pitches over the 2001–02 seasons tied for fourth in the majors, and at 24 and 25 years old, he was the youngest pitcher among the top eight in that category. Thus it wasn’t much of a shock when the elbow trouble he developed in early 2003 led to Tommy John surgery. He missed the Marlins’ championship run, but given how awash the team was with young pitching — Josh Beckett, Dontrelle Willis (his rotation replacement), Brad Penny, Carl Pavano — the team barely missed him.

Even so, Burnett made a strong return in June 2004, highlighted by a 14-strikeout effort against the Rockies on August 29. Despite posting solid numbers in 2005 (3.44 ERA, 116 ERA+, 198 strikeouts in 209 innings), he lost his final six decisions amid a race for a playoff spot and was sent home during the final week of the season after a clubhouse outburst regarding the negative attitude surrounding the team. “We play scared. We manage scared. We coach scared and I’m sick of it,” he told reporters. “It’s depressing around here. It’s like they expect us to mess up, and when we do they chew us out. There’s no positive nothing around here for anybody.”

Though Burnett apologized, and manager Jack McKeon was replaced, the skids were greased for his exit via free agency, not that the Marlins were going to pay market rate for his services. As one of the top starting pitchers in a weak field, he signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Blue Jays, reuniting with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg, with whom he’d worked well in Florida. He pitched reasonably well in Toronto and benefited from the guidance of teammate Roy Halladay, who helped him evolve from a thrower to a pitcher. Asked about his approach by the future Hall of Famer, a flummoxed Burnett couldn’t come up with more than, “Umm… I just try to throw heaters by guys. And if I get ahead, I throw my curveball as hard as I can.”

“Roy just started laughing. Like for a while. And I’m just shaking my head, like, What? What! Dude, what’s so funny?” a sheepish Burnett recalled in 2018.

Elbow inflammation (2006) and a shoulder strain (’07) limited Burnett to 46 starts and 301.1 innings in his first two seasons as a Blue Jay, the latter amid some high pitch counts. Though his 4.07 ERA (104 ERA+) in 2008 was the highest mark of his Toronto tenure, he went 18–10 while leading the AL with 231 strikeouts (and 9.4 per nine) in a career-high 221.1 innings, then exercised an opt-out clause and hit free agency again.

The Yankees, smarting from missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1994–95 strike, signed the going-on-32-year-old Burnett to a five-year, $82.5 million deal on December 12, kicking off a spending spree that would also include even more lucrative deals for CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira. They won 103 games and the AL East in 2009 while Burnett pitched to a 4.04 ERA, struck out 195, and livened up a staid clubhouse with at least 10 celebratory pies-in-the-face of teammates who collected walk-off hits. In the postseason, he made three strong starts and two lousy ones, most notably sparkling in a seven-inning, nine-strikeout, one-run effort against the Phillies — and opposite Pedro Martinez — in Game 2 of the World Series, but getting roughed up for six runs in two-plus innings when starting Game 5 on three days of rest. Still, he did a lot more for his World Series ring than he’d done in 2003.

After cruising through the first two months of 2010, Burnett began spiraling downwards during an 0–5, 11.35 ERA June, his inability to self-correct on the mound apparent to teammates, opponents, media, and fans; the boos rained down. Even after turning things around, he cut both of his hands hitting a clubhouse door in anger after a July start, prompting Eiland’s unflattering assessment. While he held opponents scoreless in six of his 33 starts, he allowed six or more runs 10 times and finished 10–15 with a 5.26 ERA. He was similarly bad in 2011 and clashed with manager Joe Girardi when he was pulled early from games. Even so, the Yankees gave him playoff turns in both years, and he notably beat the Tigers in a must-win Game 4 of the 2011 Division Series.

That turned out to be Burnett’s final start as a Yankee. On February 19, 2012 he was traded to the Pirates for two minor league non-prospects, with the Yankees sending along $20 million to cover his remaining salary. Before he could make his first official appearance for Pittsburgh, he fractured his right orbital during a spring training bunting drill and needed surgery, delaying his debut until April 21. Nonetheless, he quickly took to his new surroundings and was embraced as a clubhouse leader and mentor as well as a fierce competitor. A clip of him telling the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez to “Sit the fuck down” after a strikeout still circulates on the internet:

“He wanted to impact an organization,” manager Clint Hurdle told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2016. “He was going to be our ace. I don’t know if he had been ‘the guy’ before, but he was going to be our guy.”

With his average fastball velocity having dipped from 95.0 mph in 2008 to 93.4 in ’11, Burnett became more reliant upon his two-seam fastball, which helped him keep the ball in the park. His ground-ball rate jumped from 49.2% to 56.9%, his home-run rate dropped from 1.47 per nine to 0.8, and he turned in a 3.51 ERA while helping the Pirates to 79 wins. He was similarly strong in 2013: Despite missing four weeks due to a calf strain, he struck out 209 hitters in 191 innings for an NL-high 9.8 K/9. More importantly, he helped the Pirates clinch their first postseason berth since 1992. Alas, his lone postseason start was a disaster; after two scoreless innings in the Division Series opener against the Cardinals, he allowed seven straight batters to reach base in the third, all of whom scored before he could retire a hitter. He didn’t get another turn, bypassed in favor of Game 2 starter Gerrit Cole as the series went five games.

Having completed his five-year deal — during which he made at least 30 starts annually, something he had done just twice prior — the going-on-37-year-old Burnett was mulling retirement. The Pirates didn’t issue him a $14.1 million qualifying offer, and by the time he decided to return in January, the team somehow wasn’t interested despite making no significant additions to its roster. Burnett instead signed a one-year, $16 million deal with the Phillies, but things went poorly for both him and the 89-loss team. While he made an NL-high 34 starts and pitched 213.1 innings, his highest total since 2008, he was lit for a 4.59 ERA and took a league-leading 18 losses. Pitching the entire season with a hernia that required offseason surgery couldn’t have helped.

Not wanting to end on such a sour note, Burnett returned to the Pirates via a one-year, $8.5 million deal ($4.25 million less than the Phillies offered). He was stellar in the season’s first half, posting a 2.11 ERA while allowing two or fewer runs in 15 of 18 starts. For the first time in his career, he made an All-Star team, though manager Bruce Bochy somehow couldn’t shoehorn him into the game. After struggling in his first three starts of the second half, he missed six weeks due to elbow inflammation. He returned and helped the Pirates secure their third straight Wild Card berth, collecting his 2,500th strikeout (the Cubs’ Jorge Soler) on September 27, and his 2,507th (the Reds’ Todd Frazier) on October 3, tying Christy Mathewson for 31st on the all-time list; he surpassed Mathewson an inning later by striking out Tucker Barnhart.

That turned out to be Burnett’s final outing, as he didn’t appear in the Wild Card Game, where the team was eliminated at the hands of the Cubs. Though he believed he could still pitch — and the numbers clearly say so, with 3,000 strikeouts an outside possibility — his desire to spend time with his wife and children won out. In his retirement, his Pirates teammates lauded him for his effect on his teammates. Said pitcher Jeff Locke, “There’s just nothing that any one of us in this clubhouse are going through, or are going to go through, that he really hasn’t been through.”

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

I became a big Burnett fan during a phase I became obsessed with curveballs (Ben Sheets, Barry Zito, AJ Burnett, Matt Morris, Wood/Prior, Halladay, David Wells a little before come to mind from around that era)…The way he grew as a player at the ML level was impressive and that he was allowed to is something I suspect is largely gone from baseball as it and the fanbase becomes more and more like the NFL and it’s fanbase

I like this quote of his from the article, holds up today for the sport as a whole especially the second part: “We play scared. We manage scared. We coach scared and I’m sick of it,” he told reporters. “It’s depressing around here. It’s like they expect us to mess up, and when we do they chew us out. There’s no positive nothing around here for anybody.” Lucky rookie sensation owner, Steve-y Cohen, is likely looking to change this using his big fat powerful wallet