The fine wine that is A.J. Burnett


PITTSBURGH – A.J. Burnett is aging well, aging like a fine Bordeaux.

We saw it again last night as he carried a no-hitter into the seventh (until I jinxed it on Twitter). He has 35 strikeouts in 24 innings. He’s been awesome, much better than his 1-2 record indicates.

He’s 36. He doesn’t have the same stuff he did when he no-hit the Padres back in 2001 as a 24-year-old with electric stuff.

The graceful aging is a curious case because on the surface he looks very much like the same pitcher who struggled in New York.



(Things that age well)

His fastball has ranged from 93.2 mph to 92.3 mph over the last four seasons. He’s often a two-pitch pitcher – fastball, spike curve – though he has mixed in a two-seamer the last several seasons. He doesn’t throw a changeup often. His pitch-mix has remained remarkably consistent.

So what changed?

Yes, a move to the NL and from New Yankee Stadium to PNC Park certainly helps a pitcher with flyball tendencies.

But it has to be more than that, right?

So what changed?

“Strike one,” Burnett said last night.

But it’s not just throwing strikes, it’s throwing quality strikes — without compromising stuff.

Burnett’s command has improved, as is typical of veteran pitchers as they hone their mechanics, stop overthrowing, and are more comfortable with who they are.

Burnett has improved command BUT it has not been accompanied by a dramatic velocity decline, often associated with 30-something pitchers.

          FB velo  BB per 9

2009 –  94.2   4.22

2010 –  93.2   3.76

2011 –  92.7   3.92

2012 –  92.3   2.79

2013 –  92.7   3.00

Burnett shaved a full walk from his nine-inning average last season, falling below three walks per nine innings for the first time in a season in which he made at least 30 starts. He did not walk a batter last night and he’s averaging just three walks per nine innings, well below his career average.

There are strikes and then there are quality strikes. Burnett froze Carlos Beltran on a pin-point, 92-mph fastball in the second. In the third he froze David Freese with a 94 fastball on the outside part of the plate. He was able to back-door and back-foot his breaking ball.

Nasty stuff, quality strikes. See Burnett dominate here

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny was impressed.: “He controlled the game with a good, live fastball and he was staying out of the middle of the plate. We hit some balls hard, but right at guys. That’s good pitching.”

Said Clint Hurdle:  “(Wednesday) he had fastball command, all four corners, breaking ball back door and back foot for strikes.”

Hurdle scouted Burnett in 2010 when he was the Texas Rangers hitting coach. He saw a pitcher bothered by the big inning, a pitcher who struggled with command. He now sees a pitcher more comfortable with his stuff, with who he is as a pitcher. Maturation comes early for some, later for others. suggested today that Russell Martin’s pitch framing has much to do with Burnett’s hot start – but Martin caught Burnett in 2011 when Burnett struggled, and Burnett won 16 games without Martin last season.

This an interesting time for  Burnett to be laughing at the aging curve.

Burnett said last month he was entertaining retirement following the season. He is in the final year of a five-year, $82-million deal. If he keeps pitching like this he’ll entertain another significant contract, especially in what is projected to be an extremely weak class of free agents.

This is what Burnett said in March:

I enjoy it here and I enjoy these guys,” Burnett said. “If I was to keep playing, I wouldn’t want it to be anywhere else but Pittsburgh. My wife and I talk about it now and then. But it’s something I’ve got to put on the back burner. I’m just going to concentrate on this season, one start at a time.

He’s not pitching like a guy who should retire.

Burnett was a great buy-low pickup by the Pirates front office (can Liriano be another?). The Yankees are paying much of his contract and the Pirates gained a pitcher who is pitching as well as he ever has.

Maybe he will retire. Maybe he won’t and will return to the Pirates at a discount.  Maybe he’ll be too pricey and sign elsewhere. Maybe he’ll spearhead the Pirates’ first winning season in 21 years. Maybe the Pirates fall out of the race and he’s flipped for a prospect or two.

Whatever happens Pittsburgh has been a place of rebirth for  Burnett, and Burnett is giving the Pirates something they’ve rarely had the last two decades: a legit top-of-the-rotation option.

– Travis Sawchik