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Thursday, February 13, 2014
Burnett may miss those defensive shifts

By Tommy Rancel

The Philadelphia Phillies and free-agent starter A.J. Burnett agreed on Wednesday to one-year contract worth $16 million. The agreement ends an odd offseason for Burnett that began with rumors that the right-hander would either pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he spent the last two seasons, or retire. It was assumed that because of this scenario the Pirates did not extend a qualifying offer to Burnett. Now that he has joined the cross-state Phillies, Pittsburgh will not receive draft-pick compensation.

Despite the way things ended, Burnett enjoyed a revival in Pittsburgh after three disappointing seasons as a member of the New York Yankees. As staff anchor of the Bucs, he posted a 3.41 ERA in just under 400 innings. He struck out nearly a quarter of the batters he faced, walked less than three hitters per nine innings, and did a fantastic job of keeping the ball on the ground and in the yard.

A low-to-mid 90s fastball and a knee-knocking, slow curveball were chiefly responsible for Burnett keeping his balls in play low to the ground, but a progressive approach in defensive philosophy helped convert those grounders into outs.

As noted often during their run to the playoffs, Pittsburgh was among the most aggressive teams in regards to infield shifts. Burnett is on record as being opposed to the shift; however, since 2012 the Pirates' staff batting average allowed on groundballs is .216 -- second lowest in the majors. Burnett's personal average since joining the club is .214. The league average for the same time frame is .231. Over the last two years, Burnett was the pitcher of record for 1,135 outs. Of those, 41 percent have come on the ground.

The biggest improvement in Burnett's low average has come against right-handed batters. Same-siders posted a .269 average on groundballs against Burnett from 2009-2011 (insert "past a diving Derek Jeter" joke here), but have hit just .201 over the past two seasons. Left-handers have seen their average drop from .251 down to .227.

Burnett's new employers, however, have been slow to embrace the shift. The Phillies shifted just 45 times last season according to Baseball Info Solutions -- the second fewest in the major leagues. This was the case even after new manager Ryne Sandberg took over in late August. Philadelphia finished with a groundball average of .248 -- the fourth-worst average in the league -- despite solid play up the middle from 30-somethings Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Considering Burnett's recent success against right-handed batters pulling groundballs for outs, Rollins and Cody Asche could be especially key pieces to the puzzle.

Earlier in the offseason, the Phillies hired Scott Freedman to manage an internal analytics department. In addition to Burnett, Philadelphia has also signed groundball specialist Roberto Hernandez to fill the back end of the rotation. Perhaps the hiring of Freedman, and the subsequent signings of groundball-heavy starters, represents a shift, for lack of a better word, in organizational philosophy regarding moving infielders around.

The shift alone is not responsible for Burnett's success in Pittsburgh, but it cannot be ignored either. If Philadephia does not embrace a similar strategy, he may be wishing he stayed with the shifty Pirates.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Rays, and contributes to GammonsDaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @TRancel.