Pirates' Burnett aims to defy age curve
A.J. Burnett began thinking about returning to the Pirates last season.
When the Philadelphia Phillies and Pirates seasons intersected, Burnett told his former teammates how awkward it felt to be pitching against them, like he was pitching live batting practice in spring training.
In September, Burnett was envious of the Pirates' contending for a postseason berth while he toiled for the last-place Phillies.
After the season, Burnett opted out of his contract with the Phillies and told his agent to negotiate only with the Pirates. He took $4 million less to return to the Pirates, with whom he revitalized his career from 2012-13. He hopes to recapture that magic in 2015.
“I got one (season) left,” said Burnett, whose teammates prepare to arrive in Bradenton, Fla., this week for voluntary workouts. “I wanted to make sure I went somewhere where I was happy but also had a chance to win.”
Burnett said this will be his last season. But will it be a quality season? Will Burnett, who turned 38 on Jan. 3, continue to decline?
His ERA increased by more than run last season (3.30 to 4.58), and he led the majors in losses (18), walks (98) and earned runs (109).
Is Burnett in steep decline or can he return to his production of 2013, when he led National League starting pitchers in strikeout and groundball rate?
“A bad year is a bad year,” Burnett said. “I know it's on the back of the (baseball) card, and that's the one you don't want to look at but ... I know I'm in a good (pitcher's) park. If I keep the ball on the ground with our defense, it's going to be a huge positive.”
The Pirates need a bounce-back campaign from Burnett. They likely are done shopping for starting pitching this offseason after signing Burnett and Francisco Liriano. If Charlie Morton opens the season on the disabled list, Burnett likely would enter the year as the club's No. 3 starting pitcher.
Burnett's 2014 showing might be a reminder that no player is immune to the age curve.
Since 2008, the number of pitchers age 37 or older who produced seasons of three wins above replacement (WAR) or better — a statistic accounting for a player's total value — is small: Hiroki Kuroda (three times), R.A. Dickey, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Randy Johnson and Bartolo Colon.
Burnett's fastball lost nearly a full mile per hour in 2014 — falling from a 92.4 mph average in 2013 to 91.7.
And his swinging-strike rate, a measure of the quality of a pitcher's raw stuff, fell from 10.6 percent in 2013, among the game's best, to 8.4 percent.
But Burnett also was not healthy. He pitched through a sports hernia that required surgery in October.
“If you're not 100 percent healthy, your mind knows that,” Burnett said. “It's a struggle.”
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said the Pirates still liked a number of Burnett's indicators, likely his groundball rate and strikeout rate, which remained above the league average. Burnett also threw 213 2⁄3 innings, his most since 2008.
“We still think there's a good pitcher that can still win big games for us,” Huntington said.
While no one knows for sure how Burnett will perform, Burnett said he feels certain about one aspect of 2015: His final season will be “emotional.”
“It's going to be one of those rides where you know it's the end,” he said. “I don't plan on talking about it until it comes to that day.”
The Pirates hope that day is late in October.