Despite frequent insistence to the contrary, free-agent signings are almost always about the money. That’s what it’s all about, you know.

But not for A.J. Burnett. On Friday, he decided to be a very rare exception to the rule. And for good reasons, to boot.

As the Pittsburgh Pirates were all too glad to announce on Twitter, Burnett has signed a one-year contract with them for the 2015 season. And as Jon Heyman of reported, they were able to ink the 37-year-old right-hander for fairly cheap:

In light of how much starting pitchers are going for these days, that’s not such a bad price to pay for a pitcher of Burnett’s caliber. For perspective, his 2015 salary will be exactly the same as Jason Vargas’.

Of course, there is a funny side to Burnett signing for only $8.5 million. He could have made $12.75 million had he exercised his player option to stay with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015. Here’s Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports with a bit of math and snark:


But quips aside, that Burnett took less money to trade Philadelphia for Pittsburgh isn’t too surprising.

While the Pirates have made the postseason two straight years, the Phillies have missed October three straight years and are now looking to rebuild. Burnett also didn’t have such a great time in a Phillies uniform in 2014, posting a 4.59 ERA and a career-high 18 losses.

Burnett was considerably better in his two seasons with the Pirates in 2012 and 2013, racking up a 3.41 ERA across nearly 400 innings. Also, Joel Sherman of the New York Post has heard from Burnett’s agent that he’s legitimately fond of Pittsburgh:

Given how Burnett had a rough time in New York with the Yankees (4.79 ERA in three seasons) before he had a rough time in Philadelphia, the easy narrative to point to is that the more low-key environment of Pittsburgh is the right place for him.

And there might actually be something to that.

Early on in 2012, Burnett recalled to Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News the story of the first inning of his first game at PNC Park. The first three batters reached, but the crowd didn’t get anxious.

“I could imagine what (Yankee Stadium) would sound like, and there was about two words that came out of the crowd here,” he said. “So it’s just different. You’re a little less on edge. Some guys thrive in that.”

So, by all accounts, yes, Burnett is returning to a place where he’s comfortable. Nothing wrong with that.

Also worth discussing, however, is that Burnett may have been motivated to return to Pittsburgh to cure what ailed his pitching in 2014.

When Burnett arrived in Pittsburgh, he was coming off back-to-back seasons with an ERA over 5.00 in 2010 and 2011. He had problems with both walks and home runs in those seasons. Meaning, yeah, a lot of work needed to be done.

And a lot of work was done. There are numbers that make that clear, as Burnett went from being a strikeout pitcher with walk and homer problems to a strikeout pitcher who was better at limiting walks, getting ground balls and keeping the ball in the yard.

Courtesy of FanGraphs:

Granted, you can point out that the move to the National League helped. So, too, did the move from Yankee Stadium to PNC Park, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the league.

But the Pirates did make one major change with Burnett, and it’s not hard to spot in this graph from Brooks Baseball:

Before Burnett arrived in Pittsburgh, his four-seam fastball was his primary heater. That changed once Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage got a hold of him, and that’s no surprise. As Chris Cwik noted at Sports on Earth, the sinker is kind of Searage’s thing.

For Burnett, de-emphasizing his four-seamer in favor of his sinker worked like a charm. The pitch got ground balls nearly 59 percent of the time it was put in play between 2012 and 2013, making it largely responsible for his improved ground-ball habit.

However, it is notable that Burnett didn’t scrap his four-seamer entirely. It still played a big role in his arsenal. Searage will tell you there’s a reason for that.

“I believe the two fastballs complement each other,” he told Cwik. “The hitter has to respect both unless you’re primarily a heavy sinker pitcher. However, even then, you must keep them honest to both sides of the zone.”

That part about the hitter having to respect both pitches unless you’re a sinker-heavy pitcher? Take another look at the graph, and you can see how that’s relevant to Burnett’s 2014 season.

He got away from the balance between his sinker and four-seamer that he had in Pittsburgh, and he was hurt by it:

Based on appearances, the overuse of Burnett’s sinker essentially watered it down in 2014. That’s something Searage should be able to correct in 2015.

If so, that should get Burnett’s ground-ball habit back on track, as his ground-ball rate sunk to 50.9 with the Phillies in 2014. Even if that’s all Searage is able to fix, he’ll have done enough.

He’ll have done more than enough, however, if he can also patch up Burnett’s command. He went from a 3.0 BB/9 in Pittsburgh to a 4.0 BB/9 in Philadelphia. Per, that was largely a function of fewer of his heaters finding the strike zone.

From the looks of things, the fix for that could be as simple as getting his release point a little lower:

Granted, we’re talking about only a subtle change. But as the drop from where Burnett was in 2011 to where he was in 2012 and 2013 can vouch, a subtle change can make a huge difference.

All told, you’re looking at a couple of makable changes that, if made, could easily wash away Burnett’s lousy 2014 season and get him back to where he was with the Pirates. And even if the Pirates can’t get him all the way back to being the guy he was in 2012 and 2013, at least getting him reasonably close would result in them having a solid No. 3/4-type starter.

If it comes to that, two things will be known for sure: The Pirates will know they made a good investment, and Burnett will know he made the right choice.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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