Following another dominant start Sunday afternoon, A.J. Burnett is quickly emerging as one of the most reliable pitchers in the National League. As the Pittsburgh Pirates enter the stretch run, Burnett is pitching better than ever and gives his team a valuable big-game weapon.
The Pirates were lauded when they acquired Burnett from the Yankees for two C-level prospects, but few people expected him to be this good. Burnett has turned around a career that looked to be on the decline after a rough 2011 in New York and is putting together his best season ever.
After allowing two runs on three hits and three walks (Burnett walked the last two batters he faced after clearly running out of gas) in 8.2 innings Sunday, Burnett's FIP for the season sits at 3.59. His numbers would be considerably better if not for an outing against the Cardinals in which he allowed 12 runs in 2.2 innings.
Burnett's 2012 resurgence has seen a much-improved walk rate, more than one walk per nine innings better than in any of his seasons with the Yankees. His improved command has also resulted in more pitches down in the zone, leading to the highest ground-ball rate of his career and helping to eradicate his prior home run issues.
Burnett has been the Pirates' stopper of late, pitching his best in critical games. Sunday's victory over the Reds, his 14th of the season, was no exception. Burnett shut down a red-hot offense and prevented the Pirates from getting swept by their division rival, keeping them within striking distance in the NL Central.
He has also been a leader in the clubhouse, keeping the atmosphere light despite the pressures a young contending team faces. Burnett has embraced this team and this city, and he is taking steps to change the franchise's fortunes every time he takes the mound.
Whether he needed a change of scenery or just to get out of the difficult AL East, A.J. Burnett clearly had some value remaining heading into this year. Neal Huntington was the one general manager willing to take a chance on the pitcher this offseason, and the Pirates are reaping the benefits.