A.J. Burnett made a promise Friday.
“I’m going to be the same A.J. I was when I was there before,” he told 93.7 The Fan.
The Pirates would settle for a reasonable facsimile. They signed Burnett to a low-risk, one-year, $8.5 million deal that should leave plenty of money to add a much-needed No. 2 starter. They got themselves a bargain, if you ask me, despite Burnett’s rough year in Philadelphia.
This happens every year, you know. It’s a little dance called the Pirates Three-Step.
Goes somethin’ like this:
1. The Pirates sign a questionable free agent.
2. People freak out.
3. Player pans out — far beyond reasonable projections.
Two years ago it was Russell Martin. What were the Pirates doing spending all that money on a beat-up, offensively challenged catcher?
We all know what Martin did.
Last year it was Edinson Volquez. A joke, right? Didn’t this guy just put up some of the worst numbers in baseball?
He did. And then he put up some of the best numbers in baseball over the second half of last season.
Now it’s Burnett. His detractors are quick to point out that he led the National League in walks and losses last season, had a brutal second half and turns 38 in January.
Those are facts. Sometimes facts lie. I’m inclined to believe general manager Neal Huntington when he says there are “indicators” Burnett will return to form.
Let’s start with his strikeout rate. Burnett struck out eight hitters per nine innings last season, matching his rate from 2012, his first season with the Pirates.
He still makes hitters miss. That wicked bender still bends.
Now consider Burnett pitched through a sports hernia last season but answered the bell to the tune of 34 starts (tied career high) and 213 innings (most since 2008). He didn’t have Martin framing his pitches. He didn’t have an infield shifting as often or effectively as the Pirates did. And he had to deal with a band-box ballpark in which he allowed 11 home runs — matching his total, home and away, from 2013.
Burnett’s average fastball velocity was down a tick from 92.4 mph to 91.7 mph, according to Fangraphs.com.
“There were so many games where he showed he still had quality stuff,” manager Clint Hurdle told The Fan.
Those games included shutting out the San Francisco Giants over eight innings on July 23 — a game in which Burnett threw 131 pitches — and two late-season starts against the Washington Nationals in which he combined for 14 innings, two earned runs, 16 strikeouts and three walks.
Put him back in PNC Park with pitching coach Ray Searage, and you’re probably going to get a different guy. Or something close to the same guy he was before. Burnett’s just more comfortable here.
“I know every little corner, every little door of that clubhouse,” he said.
As for Burnett’s mercurial personality, who cares? He said he had a “great” half-hour conversation with Hurdle and that there are no hard feelings from the pair’s overblown meeting before Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis two years ago.
That has been portrayed as a situation in which Burnett went crazy when told he wouldn’t get the start. In reality, he simply walked out of the office without responding — a move for which he later apologized.
Burnett’s teammates are used to him. They’ll tell you they have no idea which of his personalities will show up at the ballpark on a given day. Jeff Locke, one of his closest friends on the team, put it in memorable terms in March, telling the Trib: “Look, there’s A.J. and there’s J.A., as I always tell him. The J.A. was for jackass. He could be that, and we all knew it. But he’s A.J. That man did so much for this team and city, and no one can deny that.”
Should be quite the moment when Burnett returns to the mound at PNC Park.
“I don’t want this season to be about me,” he said. “I want it to be about winning in Pittsburgh.”
This man can help in that pursuit.
Given the Pirates’ recent track record, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at [email protected].