A major part of Jerry Dipoto's bullpen rebuilding plan, Sean Burnett brings a lot to the table, including a crooked hat, question marks about his health and ability to repeat his stellar 2012 performance.
2012 Stats: 56.2 IP, 1-2, 2 SV, 2.38 ERA. 2.79 FIP, 58 H, 12 BB, 4 HR, 57 SO, 2.51 GB/FB, 1.1 fWAR
2013 ZiPS Projections: 56.1 IP, 3.51 ERA. 3.40 FIP, 54 H, 17 BB, 5 HR, 48 SO, 0.5 fWAR
2013 Bill James Projections: 55.0 IP, 3-3, 0 SV, 3.60 ERA. 3.68 FIP, 54 H, 15 BB, 5 HR, 40 SO
2013 CAIRO Projections: 60.0 IP, 3-3, 1 SV, 3.13 ERA. 3.32 FIP, 57 H, 18 BB, 4 HR, 50 SO, 0.8 fWAR
2013 MWAH Projections*: 55.0 IP, 2-2, 2 SV, 3.27 ERA. 3.49 FIP, 52 H, 20 BB, 4 HR, 48 SO
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA and FIP calculations are approximate)
2012 in Objective Review:
After a miserable 2011 campaign, Sean Burnett redeemed himself in a big way in 2012. Burnett nearly doubled his K/9 rate while nearly halving his BB/9 rate at the same time, both were obviously the best marks of his career. That gave Burnett two very strong seasons sandwiched around one terrible season. Assuming last season was reflective of his true talent, Burnett ranked as one of the best left-handed relievers in all of baseball. In the world of baseball, that's good enough to earn a two-year, $8 million contract with a team option for 2015.
2012 in Revisionist History:
While I'm not entirely clear on what went wrong in 2011, it seems pretty clear that what went right in 2012 for Burnett is he became more reliant on his sinking fastball and less reliant on his off-speed pitches. Well, either that or his fastball got more sinker-like as Pitch f/x says he was more of a four-seam and two-seam guy before 2011 and has since evolved into a strictly sinkerball guy in 2012. Either way, he was more effective as a whole in 2012 and induced the highest proportion of groundballs in his career, so whatever the change is, it is working and working well.
As good as Burnett was, he could have arguably been even better had he not had a fairly unlucky .331 BABIP, though he did benefit from an 84.6% strand rate, so they do offset a bit.
Those two numbers are going to be subject to random fluctuation going forward, but what won't be are his whiff and walk rate. His walk rate is of particular interest as Burnett had never really demonstrated great command before in his career, but with him walking just 5.0% of batters faced, it looked like he may have discovered pinpoint accuracy for a season. That is misleading though. What appears to have happened is that Burnett actually threw LESS strikes than ever before, only he got batters to chase all of those out of the zone pitches at a nearly 40%, up from his career norm around 30%. Getting batters to constantly chase pitches out of the zone is a pretty great formula for success. It just isn't one that I have a lot of confidence that he can repeat.
Three Lingering Questions for 2013:
1) Is Burnett going to be healthy for the season?
It turns out this flukish back injury Burnett just suffered isn't flukish at all. Minor back injuries are something of a norm for him. That's fine as long as it remains that way, but he is coming off elbow surgery too and has had knee and thumb problems in the past. Still, he's managed to throw 56+ innings every season since 2008, so nothing has been too severe.
2) When will Burnett take over as the top lefty in the pen?
Is now too soon? If Burnett pitches like he did last season, he's easily better than Scott Downs but we all know that Scioscia is loyal and may not consider Burnett his go-to lefty until Downs fails at the job first. One thing Burnett doesn't have going for him that Downs does is a good track record against righties. Downs can at least fake it against the opposite-handed hitters, but Burnett really seems exposed and that could result in him being relegated into more of a specialist role with him only coming in to face one or two batters at a time.
3) Why has his performance been so erratic the last three years?
I really wish I had an answer I here, but I don't. He was good in 2010, awful in 2011 and amazing in 2012 with wildly different peripherals in all those seasons. Normally injury is to blame but I can't find anything mentioning injury problems that season. It is very concerning to say the least because it leaves open such a wide range of ways his season could unfold in 2013.
Three Irrelevant Questions for 2013:
1) Why do lefty relievers that the Angels sign in free agency always get hurt playing with their kids?
Maybe it is just a coincidence, but just to be safe, Jerry should make a point of only signing childless southpaw relievers from here on out.
2) What's with the crooked hat?
Can't… type… having… Fraudney… flashbacks… bleaaaaarrggghhhhhhh…
3) Is he related to comic actress Carol Burnett?
Almost assuredly not, but I was having a really hard time coming up with a third question.
2013 in Subjective Projection:
All the projections clearly have Burnett tabbed for a year of regression and I can't really argue against that. Moving to the AL is going to be tougher and his miniscule walk rate seems very much like an outlier as does his strand rate. But it isn't all bad for Burnett, as mentioned above, he should hopefully have better luck on balls in play and he generally seems to have a better pitching plan in place to get the most utility from his sinker. Those latter factors will hopefully ensure that whatever regression he suffers isn't too wild of a swing.
One additional way in which Burnett should benefit is in the Angels better being able to hide him against right-handed hitting. With two high quality lefties in the pen, the Angels won't be pressed into stretching him out over four and five batters. They have the option of using him for two batters, a righty for another batter or two and than Downs for a batter or two. I don't know if that is really Scioscia's style, but he does have that option now. It also doesn't hurt that in the AL there is generally less pinch-hitting for match-ups that take place than in the NL. That shift in usage will definitely help to keep his numbers looking strong, which is saying something since Burnett actually faced more righties than lefties in 2012 and still had a fantastic line.
What we can't account for though is just the looming threat of erratic performance. That 2011 season really scares, even if most of the damage was done during the first half of the season. He was just such a different looking pitcher during that span that it is hard to have any confidence that he can maintain his current form as a guy who misses lots of bats, issues few walks and induces a ton of grounders. Really, only time will tell which Burnett the Angels ended signing.