Since the Yankees gave starting pitcher A.J. Burnett a five-year, $82.5 million dollar contract last week, it has become popular to characterize the deal as the Yankees failing to learn from past mistakes. Many analysts and fans have immediately compared Burnett’s contract to the one Carl Pavano signed with the Yankees prior to the 2005 season. Their point, of course, is that both contracts reflect the Yankees’ propensity to reward pitchers of questionable quality and durability with contracts of too many years and for too many dollars.
This notion is unfounded. Burnett and Pavano are significantly different pitchers, and to discuss their signings interchangeably is wrong. A cursory look at their respective careers will indeed reveal histories of injuries, but there are significant differences even within this apparent similarity. Beyond this, there are no fair comparisons. Burnett is a markedly better pitcher than Pavano was at the time of his signing. The numbers support this. This argument is not about the results of the deals, but about the decision-making process behind them. Albeit unlikely, Burnett could prove to be a worse signing than Pavano. But regardless of the outcome, the Yankees’ decision to invest in Burnett is smarter than their decision to invest in Pavano.
Any comparison of the decision-making behind their signings must start with an examination of their injury histories. Both pitchers came with medical red flags prior to their Yankee contracts, but the severity of the the concerns are quite different.
Pavano experienced a regular pattern of problems with his throwing arm before signing with the Yankees. He had right shoulder tendinitis in 1995. He began the 1997 season on the disabled-list with the same problem. Later in the 1997 season, he returned to the DL with right elbow tendinitis. During spring training in 1998, his shoulder tendinitis returned. He made two trips to the DL in 1999, first with right elbow soreness and then with tendinitis. His 2000 season ended prematurely with soreness in his right arm. This was diagnosed as right triceps tendinitis. He then had surgery in August of that season to remove bone chips from his right elbow. Again, in 2001, he went to the DL with tendinitis in his right triceps. Pavano then had two healthy and successful seasons in 2003 and 2004, after which he signed with the Yankees.
Burnett has also endured a barrage of injuries throughout his career. In 1997, he was placed on the DL with a broken foot. He missed the first six weeks of the 1998 season with a broken hand. In 2000, he ruptured a ligament in his right thumb during fielding practice. The 2001 season began with Burnett on the DL because of a stress fracture in his foot. He was placed on the DL in 2002 with a bone bruise. His most serious injury occurred in 2003, when he was sent for Tommy John surgery. He was placed back on the DL in 2006 with scar tissue breakup from the surgery. Lastly, he was on the DL twice in 2007 with shoulder strains. Burnett then had a healthy and generally successful 2008 season, after which he signed with the Yankees.
The nature of their injuries are different. Pavano experienced chronic problems with his throwing arm from 1997-2001, including difficulties with his shoulder, elbow and triceps. Burnett’s major problem was Tommy John surgery in 2003, which yielded a minor complication in 2006. His 2007 trips to the DL with shoulder strains are disconcerting, but not on the level of Pavano’s continual arm problems. Burnett’s other injuries were oddities and have shown no signs of reoccurrence. Based on medical history alone, Burnett is a better bet than Pavano to pitch well.
The disparity in probability for success does not end there. Once the pitchers actually took the mound prior to their signing with the Yankees, there were significant performance differences. These differences also reveal that signing Burnett was a better decision than signing Pavano.
From 1998-2004, Pavano averaged 117 IP a season. He posted a 4.57 ERA. He allowed 9.85 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 2.36 BB/9, and 5.2 K/9. He also had a Stuff score of 4.75, which is closer to replacement level than league-average. These are not overwhelming numbers.
Burnett, on the other hand, averaged 131.5 IP from 1999-2008. His ERA during this span was 3.92. He allowed 7.9 H/9, 0.8 HR/9, 3.4 BB/9, and an excellent 8.36 K/9. This allowed him to get away with his high walk rate. Burnett also had a Stuff score of 18.6 – nearly twice as good as league-average.
Remarkably, Burnett’s statistics are underwhelming considering his potential. His fastball-curveball-changeup repertoire is simply electric and worlds better than anything Pavano ever featured. If Burnett stays healthy and receives a little luck, he has the upside of a #1 starter. This is also a major difference in the processes behind each signing. Burnett’s upside is a dominant, strikeout pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground and in the park. Pavano’s upside, health-permitting, was realistically an innings-eating #4 starter.
It is this potential on which the Yankees are gambling. As such, it is the primary difference between the two signings. Burnett’s tremendous potential makes it well worth the risk for a wealthy franchise. Independent of the Pavano comparisons, the decision-making behind Burnett’s signing is understandable. When compared to the decision-making behind the Pavano deal, it is a no-contest. Burnett offers upside – and perhaps even durability – that Pavano never had. After examining their respective injury histories as well as their on-field performance, it is clear that any perceived similarities between the two signings are unfounded.