When Phillies Nation posted the news of the Phillies signing of A.J. Burnett to our Facebook page yesterday, it was met with two responses: the wildly original and hilarious “another player to play in Senior Citizen’s Bank park!” response and the “why did the Phillies sign a pitcher when they have a horrible offense?” counter question. I have got no response for the first one other than that Burnett has had two of the best seasons of his career in 2012 and 2013 and that age probably won’t be a factor for him in 2014. The second question has some legitimate depth to it and it is worth exploring.
While everyone assumes the quickest route to fixing the Phillies is through its offense, the tricky part is what spot do you improve? Four-fifths of the Phillies infield is currently locked under some sort of long-ish contract (think Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz) or protected by no trade clauses (think Jimmy Rollins) and the fifth spot, third base, is the one spot in the infield where the Phillies have a young player worth giving a shot. In the outfield, Domonic Brown and Ben Revere are two young players worth giving a shot to develop and the other corner, right field, is occupied by Marlon Byrd for two years. So even though the Phillies had the 26th best offense in baseball last year, 14th in the National League, there just isn’t a whole lot of spaces to add offensive production.
So the Phillies, presumably sensing an opportunity, or reacting to the news that Cole Hamels is behind schedule, added a pretty good pitcher to a suddenly barren rotation. Despite having Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels healthy for the entire season in 2013, the Phillies ranked 25th in ERA, 10th in FIP, and 13th in xFIP, while ranking 15th in K/9 IP and 13th in GB%. Burnett is an instant upgrade to all of those metrics.
Throw your “why are the Phillies putting Burnett in a hitter’s ballpark” concerns away: last year, Burnett led the National League starters in K/9 IP and GB%. Why are ground balls so important? Because what goes in the air at Citizens Bank Park tends to leave Citizens Bank Park. In 2013, Citizens Bank Park ranked as the park most likely to see homer in but was average in allowing doubles and was actually a below-average place to get a hit. Phillies pitchers ranked 13th in forcing ground balls but also 13th in HR/FB – anything to increase the amount of groundballs decreases the likelihood of a flyball which increases the likelihood of a homer, particularly at baseball’s easiest park to hit a homer in, Citizens Bank Park. Got that?
The greatest problem with the Burnett acquisition is not that the Phillies signed a pitcher but that they are so far away from contending that a move like this can only move the needle so much. Burnett was worth three wins in 2012 and four wins in 2013 according to FanGraphs, relying on increased use of his curve to nab ground balls. Are the Phillies just three or four games out of a playoff spot? If you believe they are, this was a great move to make. If you, like myself and many others, do not believe they are, the Phillies added an expensive arm that improves their ball club but realistically does not put them any closer to the playoff hunt.
Yet, Burnett’s unique skill set (strike everyone out, get ground balls) would fit well anywhere but is of particular help in a ballpark that plays as wacky as CBP does. In a park that ranks 19th in “hit factor”, it is the sixth easiest park to score runs because, in large part, is the easiest park to hit homers in. Burnett is an absolute upgrade to the rotation and adds a third certain starter. Whether or not Burnett is the piece that puts them over the top of the Mets’ rotation (eighth-best ERA, seventh-best FIP, and 11th-best xFIP) remains to be seen.