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A comparison

Posted by Adam Kilgore, Globe Staff  June 18, 2009 01:30 PM

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Let’s say it’s early winter. Two pitchers, Pitcher A and Pitcher B, are both free agents. They’re both big, hard-throwing righthanders. They both made their big league debuts at age 22 with the same team. Pitcher A is younger by about six months and made his debut in 2000, a year after Pitcher B.

Pitcher A, before this past season, had always been pretty durable. In eight seasons, he started at least 30 games in four of them. Pitcher A made a pair of All-Star games, finished top three in the Cy Young voting one year, went 88-66, and had an ERA+ of 110, with a single-season high of 151.

Pitcher B, even after 10 seasons, is still more about tantalizing potential and stuff than results. Before this past season, he had started more than 30 games once -- to be fair, he also started 29 one year -- and had never been an All-Star. He went 69-66, and he had an ERA+ of 112, and his best single-season ERA+ was 122.

Pitcher A and Pitcher B were pretty similar, and then this past season happened. Pitcher A hurt his shoulder, squabbled publicly with his team about his work ethic, and pitched nine innings after June 15.

Pitcher B had maybe not his best season, but certainly his most durable and dazzling season by far. He was healthy all year and went 18-10 with a whopping 231 strikeouts.

Still, even after last year, Pitcher A is 94-75 with a 106 ERA+ in his career. Pitcher B is 87-76 with a 111 ERA+. They both have their own red flags. What do you think happens in free agency?

Pitcher A was sort of forgotten about and lasted until late in the game, when he signed for one year and $5 million.

Pitcher B was one of the most highly sought-after pitchers and signed one of the richest contracts ever for a pitcher, five years for $82.5 million.

How’s it working out for both teams?

Pitcher A: 6-2 record, 71 innings pitched, 1.96 SO/BB, 1.55 WHIP, 95 ERA+. (Against his team’s primary divisional rival, he has allowed no runs in 6 innings on 5 hits, 1 walk, and 6 strikeouts.)

Pitcher B: 5-3, record, 80 2/3 innings pitcher, 1.80 SO/BB, 1.45 WHIP, 99 ERA+ (Against his team’s primary divisional rival, he has allowed 11 earned runs in 7 2/3 innings on 13 hits, 8 walks, and 4 strikeouts.)

By now, you’ve almost certainly figured this out.*

Pitcher A is Brad Penny, and Pitcher B is A.J. Burnett.

*Is this device lame? It seemed like it might be fun at the beginning. I hope it was effective.

Looking strictly at the arcs of their careers, you would expect Penny and Burnett to have roughly the same value, no? You’d probably give the edge to Burnett, but not an 82.5-to-5 edge, right?

If you’d been told at the start of the year that Penny and Burnett would pitch to a virtual duel 65 games into the season, you might not have believed it. What we’re seeing in their comparison, though, might not be all that surprising.

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