The Rivalry: John Lackey and A.J. Burnett

15 10 2010

Posted by cubs223425


Lackey signed a 5 year $82.5 million deal with Boston this past off-season

It’s one of the oldest rivalries in sports–the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. There are many defining aspects of it. The sale of Babe Ruth, the 2004 ALCS, the championship counts, and the well-known disdain for each other are some common examples. But December 16, 2009 is a more subtle date.

On this date, the Red Sox signed former Angels pitcher John Lackey. What does this have to do with the Yankees? Well, one year and four days before that–December 12, 2008–the Yankees had signed former Marlin and Blue Jay A.J. Burnett. What makes them even more similar is the contracts; both were given a total of $82.5 million over five years, despite the fact that both were 31 at the time.

Of course, the pitchers are not exactly the same. A.J. Burnett is more of the prototypical power arm. He sports the higher K/9 rate (8.2 to Lackey’s 7.1), but also the higher BB/9 rate (3.8 to 2.7 for Lackey). But the career ERA and WHIP numbers are rather similar, with Lackey–the more consistent, durable horse–leading the ERA by just 0.10 (3.89 to 3.99) and the WHIP by 0.001 (1.320 to 1.321). So, with such similar circumstances, there are going to be those, such as myself, who will wonder who won this deal. Why? Because it’s Yanks-Sawx, guys, and every facet of this rivalry is examined with extreme detail. We can evaluate the two using four categories: contract breakdown, production before their new deal, production with their new contract, and future expectations.

Contract Breakdown: As we have said, both pitchers sport 5-year, $85 million deals. But there are some differences, Burnett has a contract with a flat, no bonus deal of $16.5 million per season. Lackey, on the other hand, was given both a $3.5 million signing bonus and a first-year salary of $18 million. This allows his other four years to be just $15.25 million annually, meaning his older seasons are less expensive than those of his Yankees counterpart.

ADVANTAGE: John Lackey/Boston

Pre-Contract Performance: This might be the toughest part to call. Before their respective new deals, both pitchers posted identical 3.81 ERAs. Burnett sported a lower 1.28 WHIP, to Lackey’s 1.31, along with an 8.4/9 that trumped the 7.2 of Lackey. Lackey’s strengths came in the terms of durability and free passes. He managed to top Burnett is both BB/9 (2.6 to 3.7), as well as K/BB ratio (2.72 to 2.25). From 1999-2008, Burnett managed to make 211 starts over 215 appearances, totaling 1,376 1/3 innings. Conversely, Lackey had his numbers from 2002-2009 total 233 starts over 234 appearances, with a 1,501 innings. That led to an average of 188 IP for Lackey and 138 IP for Burnett, though that was skewed by the fact that Burnett’s first season spanned only seven outings, while Lackey was given eighteen starts when he started out. Omitting that short 1999, Burnett still falls well short of Lackey’s 188 innings with just 148 of his own. While the ERAs are identical and Burnett managed a slightly lower WHIP, the durability of Lackey resulted in an ERA+ of 116 for the former Angel, while Burnett’s frailty led to a lower 111 ERA+.

ADVANTAGE: John Lackey/Boston


Burnett has underperformed in 2010

Post-Contract Performance: Burnett and Lackey both managed to have below-average 2010s, posting ERA+ numbers of 81 and 99, respectively. Normally, this would make Lackey the clear-cut winner, but Burnett also had 2009 with his new team, where he posted a 114 ERA+. When added in, that gives Burnett a 96 ERA+ over the two seasons. Still, that doesn’t quite reach Lackey. What Burnett did that Lackey has yet to do, is be an integral part of a title run. Burnett’s entire body of work was less than ideal in the 2009 postseason (5 starts, 1-1, 5.27 ERA), he did help shut down the Phillies and Pedro Martinez in Game 2 of the World Series. He allowed just one run over seven innings, striking out nine, which left Mariano Rivera to close out the last two innings of that matchup.  His Game 5 start was considerably worse (2 innings, 6 earned runs), but that was mostly and all-offense night (even then-Phillies ace Cliff Lee allowed 5 earned over four innings). So, while Lackey has the slight regular-season record over him, what Burnett did something much bigger when he helped win that Game 2 start over an all-time great pitcher.

ADVANTAGE: A.J. Burnett/New York

Future Expectations: No one is psychic (sorry, Ms. Cleo), but 2010 can give us a rather useful way to view the future from these aging pitchers, and it’s not all that pretty. Neither pitcher had a strong 2010, but the end of the year performances were very different. Lackey had his best statistical month, posting and ERA of 3.46 and a WHIP of just 1.03. At that point in time, Burnett was imploding. He managed to go from the Yankees #2 to off of the ALDS roster by putting up a horrific 5.60 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. Burnett has since been added to the ALCS roster for New York and slated to start Game 4 against Texas’ Tommy Hunter, but the damage has been done.

ADVANTAGE: John Lackey/Boston

As a whole, John Lackey has clearly shown that he is the better choice. His long-term outlook is better in almost every manner, when compared to A.J. Burnett. His durability, future price, and 2010 results suggest that he is a better investment going forward. Of course, if Burnett can turn his awful regular season into a successful, redemptive postseason and help the Yankees to a repeat, the discussion could be brought back up. For now, though, it seems Boston has made a much better decision with Lackey.

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