Burrell – What Went Wrong?

Many were so excited when the Rays inked him last off-season and one season later, it seems just as many Rays fans are ready to move the 33 year old slugger (today is his birthday) off to another club rather than pay him $9,000,000 next season. Sure, Burrell did fight troubles with his upper back and neck area on and off during the season, but the drop off in his production was quite dramatic to the point that he went the entire season without hitting a home run against a left-handed batter. The primary reason Burrell was brought in was to provide some more balance to a lineup that was victimized on a regular basis in 2008 by left-handed pitching. But as anyone who follows the team knows, that did not happen.

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When looking at Burrell’s career splits, it is easy to see why everyone was happy to bring him aboard. In 2008, the Rays had a 93 tOPS vs LHP; a score of 100 is league average. Let’s take a look at how the team performed against righties and lefties in 2008 and 2009.

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The team was actually remarkably better against LHP in 2009 despite Burrell’s help and that was thanks to the addition of players like Gabe Kapler and increased use of Ben Zobrist in 2009 but the team held rather constant to their 2008 performance against righties. Unlike the team, Burrell’s skill did not remain constant 2009 compared to his career. Before 2009, he struck out 29% of the time while walking 13% against right-handed pitching. In 2009, he still struck out that much but his walk rate fell to 10%. In his career against lefties, he had struck out 26% while walking 19% of the time; his strikeout rate went up to 29% while his walk rate fell to 16% in 2009.  The most telling sign of Burrell’s problems with power in 2009 can be seen in his HR/FB ratio. Burrell has been a hitter that has lived in the high teens with that metric and averaged 17% his final three years in Philadelphia’s bandbox of a park; in 2009 that fell down to 10%.

What worries me is what happens to guys like Burrell as they age – something Bill James coined “old man skills” quite some time ago. James’s theory says that big, bulky guys don’t age well in comparison to speedy players and Burrell certainly fits the mold of big bulky guys.  When you view the players Baseball-Reference sees as statistically similar to Burrell over a career, the numbers get more depressing. Take away the fluke 2003 year that Tony Clark had in Arizona as a 33 year old and the numbers are rather depressing.

graph courtesy of fangraphs

courtesy of fangraphs

When Burrell’s deal was first signed, I was ok with the dollars because I figured his 2010 inflated salary was a way to reward him for taking less money in 2009 to help the club but after watching 2009’s struggles, the thought of paying Burrell $9,000,000 in 2010 is not very appealing. The rumored trade to the Cubs for perennial malcontent Milton Bradley is the only way Burrell is on another club in 2010 because the Rays are not the type of team that will eat salary in a trade just to rid themselves of a mistake and no other team is going to want to take on such an expensive risk that can only DH at this point in his career. The Rays best hope is that the back issues that troubled Burrell in 2009 work themselves out this off-season and that he can once again contribute in the middle of the lineup as he will be playing for the final contract of his career.

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About Jason Collette

Writer/Analyst
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