Sunday, July 04, 2004

Bullish On Burnett

Jack Wilson did indeed make the All-Star team. Congratulations to Jack.

But now I'd like to celebrate a player I think will continue to have success in the future. The Pittsburgh Tribune Review has a little poll up at their baseball page:

Which minor league pitcher will have the biggest impact with the Pirates?

Jon VanBenschoten
Bryan Bullington
Zach Duke
Ian Snell
Bobby Bradley

I'll take (F), Oliver Perez. I know, he's not a minor-leaguer, but he's younger than VanBenschoten, Bullington or Bradley and he's pitching circles around all of them. (Incidentally, Oliver should be on the All-Star roster. If the Pirates can keep him healthy, though, he'll have more chances.)

Let's be straight about these guys. Bobby Bradley's not much of a prospect anymore. He's had years of development zapped by injuries, and he's never put up the strikeout numbers an elite prospect should. Bullington's already almost 24 and he still hasn't really figured out the AA Eastern League. VanBenschoten's already 24 and is still in the minors.

Snell and Duke are younger and are putting up excellent numbers, but for both, an arm injury is just a curveball away. The point is that the Pirates' core of young pitching isn't all it's cracked up to be. VanBenschoten, Bullington, Snell and Duke are all maybe B+ prospects, and Bradley is far worse than that.

Which brings us to Sean Burnett, the first of the Pirates' recent streak of first-round pitching choices to make the majors. Despite some numbers that initially look discouraging, Burnett may be the best of the Pirates' homegrown talents. He was downright excellent today (or at least his numbers were; I didn't see the game and only listened to part of it on the radio), striking out four, walking none and allowing two runs in six innings.

But in nearly 30 big-league innings this year, he's got fifteen strikeouts and ten walks, which isn't impressive, not nearly as impressive as his 3.07 ERA. So why is his ERA so low? It's because he doesn't allow homers (none so far), and because his groundball to flyball ratio is 2.00, which would tie him for eleventh in the majors if he threw enough innings to qualify (behind known groundball pitchers like Brandon Webb, Derek Lowe and Jake Westbrook).

The really good news about this is that keeping the ball on the ground was Burnett's M.O. throughout his minor league career. Also, GB/FB ratio is a skill, in that the same players do it year in and year out. Many of the leaders in GB/FB ratio this year were also near the top of the class last year. Webb and Lowe have been the best both years, along with Roy Halladay, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton, Miguel Batista and Odalis Perez. Burnett needs to maintain his very high GB/FB ratio to continue to be successful, but there's no good reason to think he won't do it. It's early to get too excited about him - he didn't pitch all that well at AAA Nashville before he was promoted - but the signs from his first few major league starts are very promising.


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