It’s a weird thing, trying to decipher the coded language of baseball player development. Is there a magic elixer which unlocks the full force of a player’s potential? What combination of emotional nurture and technical knowledge best equips a player for a future success? Much is made of surrounding players with positive influences, veteran players with a well-worn playbook spelling out exactly how they made it work in the big leagues.
Yesterday afternoon, watching the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies do battle, the Getting Blanked team could not help but marvel at the magnificence that is A.J. Burnett. Burnett appears, to the outside observer, to be a leader among the young Pirates. Not just the pitchers but all players. Shots in the dugout of Burnett holding court or, as the above GIF shows, reacting to one of his players (Clint Barmes) being hit in the back with a pitch.
We laughed about the Pirates presumed desire to keep top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole far, far away from A.J. Burnett, a player with a flaky reputation who is known among some fans as the type of player who squandered his talent. Goofy Burnett, don’t let him near the future of the franchise, we chuckled.
Until we remembered two things: A.J. Burnett is the leader of the Pirates and both those players, Taillon and Cole, would KILL for careers even half as good as Allan James Burnett.
Most of the impressions formed by fans and media have to do with his brushes with the limits of professionalism during his 15-year career. More people associate A.J. Burnett with shaving cream pies and hot pepper races than with an enviable career over which he amassed 34 fWAR (26 rWAR), making more than 300 starts will posting a FIP under 4.00. A player frequently derided for his injury-prone ways who also hasn’t been on the DL for a non “bunt to the face” injury since 2007.
Additionally, Burnett has shown considerable “personal growth” and “maturity” since coming to the Pirates. Burnett travelled, while rehabing the aforementioned broken face, to Pittsburgh to partake in Opening Day festivities. He wasn’t playing, he hadn’t yet pitched in a regular season game for the Pirates but he travelled for the game then returned to Florida. Burnett forged a bond with young Pirates starter James McDonald
While Burnett’s career numbers might not line-up with what his career might have amounted to in a different world, there is one sure way A.J. Burnett’s words can resonate with his young teammates: his career earnings top $120 million. A.J. Burnett hit the free agent market and got paid. Twice.
Say what you want but his squandered abilities and goofy ways but the Pirates players sure seem to love Burnett. While dreaming on Cole and Tallion to become their ace/number 2 starters for the next six years, reality and historical precedents suggest either player needs to get very lucky to even achieve the “modest” success of non-ace A.J. Burnett. Which is weird to type and think but, in the end, not inaccurate.
There is no greater development tool than the ceaseless pressure of attrition. A.J. Burnett just might have a few tips and tricks for the Pirates young pitchers that might pay dividends down the road.