Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett may want to reconsider the whole retirement thing if the 38-year-old righthander’s season continues as it has to this point.
Through 12 starts, Burnett is 6-2 with a 2.11 ERA, fourth best ERA in the National League and seventh best in all of MLB. In 76.2 innings pitched, Burnett has struck out 70, and opponents are hitting for a modest .240 batting average off him.
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Teaming with young ace Gerrit Cole, youn lefty stud Jeff Locke, and veterans Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, the “old man” Burnett is doing more than his part to help the Pirates keep pace with the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs in the highly competitive National League Central division.
Last November, following a forgettable 2014 season with the Phillies, Burnett declined a $12.75 million 2015 player option to return to Philadelphia. In hopes of getting one last shot at a ring with a contending team, Burnett called Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, hoping the two sides could reach an agreement to bring Burnett back to the place where he had resurrected his career in 2012.
That dreadful 2014 season with the Phillies may have been the worst of his career, and many believed that Bunett would call it quits after 16 years in the game. In 34 starts with the Phillies last season, Burnett went 8-18 with a 4.59 ERA. His 18 losses were a career worst and led Major League Baseball, as did the 96 walks he allowed in 213.2 innings pitched. While some of his struggles could be attributed to a season-long inguinal hernia injury, Burnett frankly just wasn’t that effective.
Fortunately for Burnett, the Pirates offered him a 1-year, $8.5 million contract to return to the club. For more than four million dollars less than he would have made had he exercised his option with the Phillies, Burnett came back to Pittsburgh, in what he said would be his final season.
Way back in 1995, Burnett had been drafted by the New York Mets. He would spend less than three years in the Mets system before being shipped off to the 5-year-old Florida Marlins franchise in 1998. Burnett made his major league debut in 1999 at the age of 22, earning a Win by allowing just one run in 5.2 innings pitched against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
As a member of the Marlins, Burnett would develop along with some of the best young arms in the game, teaming with other up-and-coming hurlers Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, and Dontrelle Willis. Over the 2002 season—his best as a member of the Fish, Burnett tossed 5 shutouts in 29 starts. He would finish that season with a 12-9 record, 3.30 ERA, and 203 strikeouts in 204.1 innings pitched.
The game hasn’t always been easy for Burnett. 2003 season was particularly disappointing for him. He would have to watch his Marlins team win a magical World Series against the New York Yankees without contributing much himself due to recovery from undergoing Tommy John surgery early in the season.
After a couple more solid seasons with the Fish, Burnett was one of the most sought after free agents heading into the 2005 offseason. Receiving a 5-year, $55 million contract from the Toronto Blue Jays, Burnett took his talents north of the border. But Burnett ended up playing only 3 of those seasons in Toronto, opting out of his contract in 2008 in search of a new deal.
The big-spending Yankees came calling, winning the Burnett sweepstakes by inking him to a 5-year, $82.5 million deal to pitch in the legendary Yankee blue pinstripes. His time in the Bronx would prove tumultuous, to say the least.
“I can honestly say, without bragging or boasting, that I could probably get 3,000 punchouts. And I know to a lot of people, that could get you in the Hall of Fame. But there are more important things in life.” ~ Burnett
Burnett’s first regular season with the club in 2009 produced a fairly pedestrian 13-9 record with a 4.04 ERA. However, New York reached the World Series, facing the defending champion Phillies. In his first career World Series start, Burnett won Game 2 of the 2009 Fall Classic against the Phils, jump-starting the Yanks and helping them to win their 27th overall championship.
Over his next two seasons, Burnett went just a combined 21-26 and owned a 5.20 ERA. In 2010, he led the American League in hit batters, and in 2011, led the league in wild pitches. Failing to live up to the hype surrounding him when he signed and feeling the wrath of their fans, the Yankees decided they had seen enough of Burnett. They traded the righthander to the Pirates for a pair of minor leaguers in the spring of 2012. With that, his stint in the Bronx was over.
Thankfully for Burnett, the move to Pittsburgh would help him rediscover his old mojo. A return to the National League proved to be beneficial, as Burnett went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA in his first season with the Buccos. His 16 wins were the most victories he accumulated since his final year in Toronto, and his 3.51 ERA was the lowest since his final year in Florida.
In 2013, Burnett had a another productive year, going 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA and a league leading 9.8 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. He also helped Pittsburgh clinch their first playoff berth since 1992.
After that season, Burnett and the Pirates were unable to come to an agreement on a contract, and despite wavering on his plans to play in 2014 for much of the offseason, Burnett surprisingly signed a one-year, $15 million contract with a player option for 2015 with the Phillies.
Burnett called the decision a “no brainer,” citing Philadelphia’s close distance to his Maryland home. Unfortunately, the signing didn’t work out for either side. Burnett had a poor season, and the Phillies finished in last place in the NL East with a 73-89 record.
Now he’s back in Pittsburgh, and is showing that 2014 wasn’t the real A.J. Burnett after all, and proving that he does indeed have something left to offer. Of his 12 starts, Burnett has recorded 9 Quality Starts. Even more impressive, Burnett has gone 7 innings in half of his 12 starts.
Burnett’s best outing of the season came on May 23 against the New York Mets when he dazzled for 7 innings, allowing one earned run on five hits, fanning 10 batters. Much of his better fortune this season has come as a result of throwing his sinker more. Of the 1,130 pitches he has thrown this year, 52% have been sinkers according to FanGraphs data.
The reliance on that sinker is a stark contract from last season, when Burnett threw the pitch just 37% of the time. As a result of the sinker, combined with his nasty knuckle curve, he has a 55.5% ground ball rate thus far in 2015.
Even with this season’s turnaround, Burnett said in an interview with the Bleacher Report’s Scott Miller that his success will have no effect on whether he decides to come back for an 18th season.
“It’s not going to change my mind, not with what’s going on in my life right now,” Burnett told Miller. “In my opinion, I could play three or four more years. I can honestly say, without bragging or boasting, that I could probably get 3,000 punchouts. And I know to a lot of people, that could get you in the Hall of Fame. But there are more important things in life.”
Right now, Burnett is having fun competing and giving the game all he has left. After going through so many ups and downs, Burnett is putting a nice cap on his 17 years in the big leagues. If he keeps performing the way he has through the first two and a half months of the season, he could be selected to July’s All-Star Game for the first time in his career.
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out for Burnett and the Pirates. Obviously, the veteran hopes it results in a championship for himself, his team, and the city of Pittsburgh. But if Burnett keeps up this lights-out pitching, and the Pirates fade out of playoff contention in the division, the team could move him to a World Series contender.
Burnett is scheduled to get the ball against the Phillies on Sunday afternoon at 1:35 at PNC Park. In his last start against the Fightins back on May 12 in Philadelphia, Burnett earned a victory by tossing 7 solid innings, giving up just one earned run on six hits, striking out five.
Coming off another impressive start against the Milwaukee Brewers in his most recent outing, Burnett should have no problems against the Phillies lifeless offense on Sunday as he looks for his 7th win of the season. Following last year’s team and individual debacle, so far it’s nothing less than a highly rewarding season of success for A.J. Burnett in the Steel City.