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Chances are that you have not allocated much of your life’s attention to right-handed and occasionally-mustachioed starting pitcher John Burkett. And for good reason: Our temporary protagonist (and current professional bowler) threw his last pitch nearly 14 years ago, after a decade of plying his trade for five different teams, usually rounding out rotations, eating innings, waiting to be replaced.

It would be difficult to design a more invisible major-league starter. Burkett’s career ERA+ stands at 99, his record at 166-136, thanks to the quality of the players behind him. He didn’t walk many batters, sported a league-adjusted K%+ of 115, slightly above average. He made two All-Star teams in 14 years, never reached a World Series. Not once, but twice, he was acquired by a team in the offseason and then released before the end of spring.

His one great year (because even John Burketts have one great year), with the 1993 Giants, he won 22 games and earned six percent of the NL Cy Young vote; it proved to be one win shy of what the team needed to reach the postseason. A decade later, the Red Sox replaced him with Curt Schilling after a 2003 season that saw him post a 5.15 ERA and nine earned runs in nine post-season innings. He retired quietly.

Burkett made such an impact on the game that Roger Craig, his manager, is quoted in the BR Bullpen page as having this to say about him:

This is perhaps not the kind of accolade one looks for in a letter of recommendation or a comment in a middle school report card. It’s the kind of encouragement you’d expect to hear of a parent with newborn twins, perhaps, or an above-average Minesweeper player.

Burkett's final surface-level totals:

GS

IP

W

L

K/9

BB/9

ERA

423

2648.1

166

136

6.0

2.4

4.31

Not a bad career, all told. You can think of him as Jeff Suppan with a few more strikeouts, or if it works for you, Steve Traschel with a little better control. Your basic third or fourth starter with good health, the guy who always seems to be pitching instead of the ace when you go to the ballpark.

Or you could think of him as a borderline Hall of Famer.

John Burkett, Wins Above Replacement

Baseball Reference

FanGraphs

Baseball Prospectus

21.6

44.3

55.0

The story of John Burkett is essentially the opposite of the story of another young San Francisco Giant: Matt Cain. Before the talk of Matt Cain became “isn’t it depressing how bad Matt Cain is” and “I wonder if Matt Cain will even make the Opening Day roster," the big story was always about his peripherals. Cain was the first tough test of FIP, a fly-ball pitcher who consistently outperformed projection systems by keeping one-eighth of them from escaping the infield. Through 2012, over his first 1,500 innings, Cain posted an ERA of 3.27 and a FIP of 3.65. Since that cutoff, mediocrity has leveled those numbers out a bit.

Burkett, meanwhile, got the opposite treatment from his fielding-dependent pitching. In fact, he was unlucky in many ways. He chose the peak of the steroid era to hit his mid-30s, which exaggerated his decline. (No combination of technology and wokeness will ever truly succeed in making people accept the idea that a 5.62 ERA in 1999 would result in a mere 90 ERA+.) Pitchers were struggling all over the place, but the enigmatic Burkett, with no real standout virtue, looked particularly cooked.

Burkett also holds the third-worst ERA-FIP differential in modern baseball, behind perennial failed fantasy sleeper candidate Ricky Nolasco and perennially underrated Mariner and Red Erik Hanson. But both pitched barely more than half of Burkett’s innings, and as we saw with Cain, Nolasco’s decline phase will probably erode his lead. The next pitcher on the list with as many innings is no. 18, Javier Vazquez, who like Burkett was left off the Hall of Fame ballot entirely, although to perhaps somewhat more public chagrin.

Name

IP

ERA

FIP

ERA-FIP

Ricky Nolasco

1706.2

4.52

3.85

0.67

Erik Hanson

1555.1

4.15

3.63

0.52

John Burkett

2648.1

4.31

3.85

0.46

Bobby Witt

2307.1

4.79

4.39

0.40

Shane Reynolds

1791.2

4.09

3.69

0.40

Edwin Jackson

1724.1

4.65

4.27

0.38

Sidney Ponson

1760.1

5.03

4.67

0.36

Francisco Liriano

1513

4.05

3.70

0.35

Jose Lima

1567.2

5.26

4.91

0.35

Kevin Tapani

2265

4.35

4.01

0.34

Jaime Navarro

2055.1

4.72

4.38

0.34

Mark Gubicza

1676.1

3.97

3.65

0.32

Bob Tewksbury

1676.2

3.97

3.65

0.32

Charles Nagy

1954.2

4.51

4.19

0.32

Esteban Loaiza

2099

4.65

4.34

0.31

Danny Jackson

1584

4.15

3.84

0.31

Javier Vazquez

2840

4.22

3.91

0.31

This is fine, but it leaves us with two major and very different questions. The first: if FIP gets us to 44 wins above replacement level, how does DRA get him to 55? Forty-four wins is a surprising number for a guy whose rookie card is worth zero cents, but it’s not methodology-challenging. It’s John Lackey level, A.J. Burnett level. It’s enough that someone who wasn’t around him would probably say, “Huh, I guess I just never really got a chance to watch him,” and go about their day.

But 55 WARP pushes his legacy to the edge of credulity. Fifty-five wins puts Burkett, admittedly with 200 extra innings, a half-win ahead of Justin Verlander, 2.5 wins shy of Juan Marichal. (He’s also six back of poor Javier Vazquez.)

One factor in the difference is just inflation: BP simply rates its starters more highly, or its replacement level lower, than FanGraphs. The average pitcher on that 1,500-plus innings list saw a 10 percent higher WARP than fWAR. So in Burkett's case, that’s three of our 11 wins right there. The other eight are locked within Burkett’s DRA, which at 3.73 is a shade lower than his FIP. As it turns out, there was something we hadn’t seen before:

Year

1987

1990

1991

1992

1993

1994

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

2000

2001

2002

2003

TOTAL

CSAA Runs

0

3

8

5

12

5

6

9

11

4

1

6

3

9

9

94

As it turns out, Roger Craig not only wasn’t lying, he was underselling things. Not only did Burkett have good control, he had excellent (and remarkably consistent) command. Burkett was the quintessential Roger Craig pitcher: taught the manager’s trademark split-finger fastball, Burkett lived by the ground ball and picked up called strikes on the bottom of the zone, avoiding the meatball-prone center and top of the zone.

Burkett doesn’t have the pinpoint reputation that a contemporary like Bob Tewksbury did, because he was willing to walk a batter now and then; better to throw a pitch on the edge, with a 50 percent called-strike probability, than an easy pitch to hit. This skill was worth nine wins, and went unappreciated in his time. Walks, in the 90s, were the only way we had to evaluate command.

But there’s also the second question: whether any of this matters. Deserved or not, Burkett did give up all of those runs. With Cain, the common sentiment was that in his case, Baseball Reference’s rWAR (which uses a simpler RA9-based algorithm to calculate value) did a better job of summarizing his value than the more complicated systems. The argument: every value-seeking system has to make some balance between recording what happened and what should have happened. rWAR leans far more heavily toward the former, while fWAR and WARP do the latter.

But after 1,500 innings, what was left to predict? People were tired of waiting for a regression that never seemed to arrive. At some point, Cain had to be as good as his numbers, because they were the numbers he earned. Should we take the opposite stance with Burkett, disregard the defenses and the ballparks and the sequencing and just say, “If he could have gotten it done, he would have?”

I don’t think there’s a correct answer. On the one hand, if you have a statistic that declares John Burkett a minor legend, it throws doubt on your numbers. At the same time, if you dismiss any system that doesn’t arrive at the conclusions already held, maybe the metric isn’t the problem.

We don’t want the Hall of Fame to be a WAR leaderboard. Burkett doesn’t belong in the Hall, even if he probably did belong on the ballot. But personally, I love the opportunity for reassessment that the WAR variants sometimes force on us. We may go through the numbers and decide that it’s a fluke or a flaw, that Burkett did something that the formula loved, but that didn’t actually prevent the other team from scoring runs. Or perhaps the opposite: that he was doing his part, handling the elements of winning that were under his control. But at least we have to stop and form an opinion about the player’s career.

For a guy like John Burkett, an anonymous fourth-starter star, it may be the first and last time he receives it.

(Mighty thanks to Jonathan Judge, Rob McQuown and Harry Pavlidis for their assistance with this article.)

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Tarakas
4/10
Nice article and analysis. It also got me thinking of Bob Forsch, a long time Cardinals starter whose statistics are mind boggling in today's context. Pitching in the 70s and 80s, he racked up a similar Baseball Reference WAR with a similar ERA+ to Burkett, while striking out 3.6 batters per nine innings.

The Cardinals inducted him into the team Hall of Fame.
euqubudhp
4/10
I wanted to run a comparison of Forsch's career K%+ to other pitchers of his quality, but the subtotals are more than my work laptop can handle. I'll try to do it tonight, but just at a glance, he's probably around a 70 or so, which is crazy.

To put it in perspective: Forsch's best K%+ was 86. 2015 Ryan Vogelsong's season was an 85.
jfranco77
4/10
Sort of an interesting comparison to the much maligned Jack Morris, of the career 3.90 ERA and 43.8 bWAR, but 64.3 WARP. Granted, Morris needed an extra 1200 innings to do it.
marctacoma
4/10
This article was great, but at the risk of being the warned-about guy who dismisses things that challenge his priors, uh, the list of highest WARP pitchers is kind of bonkers.

The list of pitchers ranked in the games 100 greatest ever is chalk full of Burkett types: guys who were perfectly fine back-of-the-rotation starters in the 80s-90s-2000s. It's as if WARP has tried to challenge the Hall of Fame voters' irrational exclusion of this era's pitchers by overrating them. Zane Smith - THE Zane Smith, the only guy to have pitch-face while NOT pitching - cracks the top 100 despite throwing fewer than 2000 career IP. Shane Reynolds! Derek Lowe! Jon Lieber! They're all all-timers despite very low IP totals.

A big part of this, I'm guessing, is that the WARP list only goes back to some date in the 50s or so. Christy Mathewson/Walter Johnson/Cy Young aren't on it, so it must start after they retired. Even Robin Roberts isn't on it, so maybe it starts around the mid 60s or so?

The second seems to be the boost for pitching in a high-run-scoring environment. Thus, Matt Morris and Brandon Webb dominate a *career* value list while Vida Blue/Catfish Hunter suffer.

A Patrick Dubuque article needs no justification or evidentiary support, but the WARP leaderboard needs some explanation, even if just a "this covers year X-Y" disclaimer.
euqubudhp
4/10
You're right, WARP begins at 1953 for the NL and 1951 for the NL, I believe. Anyone whose career even touches these boundaries is uncounted by BP leaderboard purposes, so no Roberts (who's around 60 WARP for the seasons counted, plus three good years before).

I did make the distinction of comparing Burkett to modern baseball, a definition that can range from 1947 to 1988, depending on which guy named Sam you ask. But I should have been more specific. Sorry about that.

This piece wasn't meant to be a full leaderboard examination, but it's hard not to take the next step. (Jim Palmer's overrated accomplishments have been talked about a long time, but those faint of heart shouldn't look up, say, Tom Glavine.) All I'll say is that by all means take WARP, like all statistics, with whatever salt necessary, and do your own critical analysis to arrive at the leaderboard of your heart.

markedits
4/10
John Burkett pitched the most masterful game I’ve ever seen in person (admittedly a small sample). It was most likely this game against the Braves on July 30, 1992, at Candlestick (http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1992/B07300SFN1992.htm), though it could have been this one vs. Atlanta on April 16, 1993 (http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1993/B04160SFN1993.htm) (I doubt it, though – I think I would have remembered Bonds, who was a longtime mainstay on my roto team).

My seat was behind the home plate end of the third-base dugout, so I couldn’t judge horizontal location or movement well. But his changing of speeds was incredible. The Braves hitters were completely off-balance the entire game (which, as I recall, took Burkett fewer than 100 pitches). His motion was inordinately consistent, easy, and smooth. I had showed up to cheer the Braves but instead was treated to a demonstration of what pitching is all about.
mhmckay
4/10
I know it's a different sport, but over a career, I'm drawn back to the Parcells quote "You are what your record says you are". We know the fancy metrics work on average, but don't apply to certain pitchers. If you have 2600 IP of data saying you are a 4.32 ERA pitcher, you are a 4.32 ERA pitcher. Hitting era context to your heart's content, the rest of the record suggests: above average major league contributor for a well above average period of time. That's not a HOFer, and not really even someone for the "Hall of Very Good". In today's world, he would accumulate 9 figures of lifetime salary -- that should be enough of a gold watch for "job well done". He probably made $30 mill + given his era -- certainly enough to be very well "set for life". Don't think MLB owes him more.
Tedd87
4/11
12 perfect games too (albeit in bowling).