ST. LOUIS -- What A.J. Burnett remembers thinking, in the middle of the gut-wrenching pain, was don't fall to the ground. He kept telling himself not to collapse in a heap in front of his new team. He wanted to take the throbbing he was feeling under his right eye like a man and this meant not falling to the ground in withering pain.
In March after an attempted bunt popped up and hit Burnett under the eye, he managed to walk back to the training room holding a towel over his eye. To save face he made sure to do a little trash talking on the way, “I’ll be back to finish the bunting,” Burnett recalls yelling to his teammates.
“I remember going into the training room thinking it’s got to be a bruise, it just missed me, I’m fine,” Burnett said about the few moments after the injury. “But I’m having surgery two days later. I was fortunate that ball wasn’t a half an inch higher.”
Burnett could have easily become a non-story this season. After being traded in the offseason from the Yankees to the Pirates he could have faded into oblivion. No one would have questioned his commitment; what did people expect, really? He could have cruised through the 2012 season with a 4.00 ERA without any repercussions. Burnett could have just faded away, like countless other pitchers have after a few years of struggling in the majors.
Throughout his career, Burnett has had flashes of brilliance, like his no-hitter in 2001 against the Padres when he was with the Marlins, and times of struggle. It’s consistency he’s lacked, but Burnett has found it this year in Pittsburgh.
“It’s just goes back to me finding who I am and what I did in the past that made me successful, “ Burnett said of why he has been so reliable this year. “I think I got away from that a lot in the last couple of years.”
His 3.63 ERA ranks 37th in the majors. Put in perspective, C.J. Wilson’s ERA is 3.62, Zack Greinke's is 4.01 and Mark Buehrle's is 3.69, all pitchers who made moves to new teams this year. Burnett’s 15 wins this season are more than any pitcher from the Yankees, who spent $13 million to send him away, and his ERA is lower than the Yankees starting pitchers Freddy Garcia (4.96), Ivan Nova (4.92) and Phil Hughes (4.23).
Burnett offers one explanation for why his focus this year has been better than in years past.
“I think having Rod [Barajas] back there behind the plate has helped tremendously and I give a lot of credit to these guys in the clubhouse,” Burnett said of his Pirates teammates. “It’s a good group to be around. They’ve really accepted me as who I am and what I do and it makes me try to be better.”
Burnett doesn’t pinpoint the typical catcher skill such as pitch selection, the way Barajas frames the ball or the way he controls the running game, but more than anything he says it’s the fact that they know each other so well.
“I’ve had great catchers, I’ve been blessed my whole career throwing to good catchers,” said Burnett. “Some just click better than others I guess. We’ve been hanging out a lot away from the field. In [2008, when both Burnett and Barajas played for the Blue Jays], he really helped me. It seems like he knows what the ball is going to do before it does it.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says Barajas has been “a very pivotal part of the steps forward that we’ve been making.”
From the manager’s perspective the relationships Barajas has with the pitchers and his attention to detail has been well documented inside the clubhouse and in the meetings, but Hurdle says when it comes to Barajas working with Burnett, it doesn’t matter what he thinks as manager. What matters is how Burnett and the rest of his pitching staff feel about the job the catcher is doing.
“And they have bought into it,” Hurdle said. “I do think the comfort zone that certain guys have with certain catchers is unarguable.”
Hurdle says it’s not that the other catchers are not good, in fact Michael McKenry caught Burnett one game and he pitched well, but the catcher and pitcher relationship is more about familiarity and trusting.
“It’s like having a babysitter for five years and she leaves and you have a new babysitter,” Hurdle said about the dynamic. “You have to call home [with the new babysitter], the [old babysitter] you’re not calling home. They’re good -- we might not go home, we might not come back.”
This is the type of trust Barajas has earned this year from Burnett when he pitches, and the results are telling.
Another aspect of Burnett’s turnaround this year has been how he's used his pitches. His sinker has more movement on it than in previous years and his pitches are getting ground balls 55.6 percent of the time. Burnett, 35, says this is due to “just pitching” instead of going out on the mound and trying to throw.
“I guess sooner or later you have to accept the fact that you don’t throw hard anymore. I am getting a little older,” he says with a smile. But baseball has a funny way of defining age, so Burnett has gone back to the basics of pitching.
“Here lately, I’ve been missing over the plate, balls have been finding the seats, but for the most part I’ve been able to get that ground ball when I need to,” said Burnett.
This year, Burnett’s pitching mechanics have remained the same. The change, he says, is in the mental side of pitching. When it comes to executing his pitches in the game, he feels for him “it’s all mental.”
The rebirth of Burnett on the pitching mound should remind people in baseball to think about the mental aspect of pitching. Baseball players are just a cross section of society -- everyone has a different makeup, a different need to fill. In a sports world where most athletes keep their head down and their focus inward, Burnett has an uncanny ability to sense and take in everything going on around him. He cares about people and observes things other baseball players would never even see. Watch Burnett on the field -- in practice, game or just hanging out with his team -- and what stands out most is his ability to notice what others are doing.
“The mental side of pitching influences, and can even supersede when necessary, the physical and technical side,” said Dr. Erin Shannon, a clinical psychologist who works with professional athletes. “It is the mental side that allows strength, focus, and accuracy when a pitcher is tired, hurting, or distressed. It is the mental side that the pitcher takes home with him at night, he sleeps with it, dreams with it, wakes with it, eats with it, trains with it, travels with it. Win or lose, rain or shine, drunk or sober, there it is.”
Dr. Shannon says baseball players need to understand how the mind works and use it to their advantage, or it will negatively affect their careers. Pitchers can do this by believing they will maintain consistently good power pitches and they should have the ability to reframe mistakes or hits as opportunities to learn and conquer situations with the next batter. She adds confidence and consistency are born from the mental aspect of pitching.
“From being out on the field to coming in the dugout in between innings, you’ve got to be able to separate the two,” Burnett said of why the mental aspect of pitching matters so much. “Sometimes it takes some people longer to learn how to do that. You have to be able to focus out on the field and come back into the dugout and get away from it for a few minutes, not really turn it off, but just turn it down a little bit -- have time to do other things so you’re not just constantly drilling yourself the whole game but I think [pitching is] all mental.”
In a late summer game in St. Louis, with the night air holding on to a little bit of summer and the first crispness of fall, Burnett hangs on the dugout rail with his teammates watching the game. Pirates' All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen says this is one of the many aspects of Burnett’s leadership he appreciates.
“He’s always the guy that when I turn around after a pitch and I look at the dugout he’s always there on the fence watching the game,” said McCutchen. “That’s the kind of player that he is.”
Watching Burnett all comfortable and at ease with his teammates makes the freak accident in spring training seem inconsequential now, but the day Burnett returned to spring training and threw batting practice for the first time after the eye surgery was important for this Pirates team. When Burnett walked onto the field, his teammates clapped for him. At the time it was a feel-good story, one for the cynics to say it was a good show for the media, now looking back, the moment foreshadowed a very important piece of the Pirates this year: team chemistry.
Before the trade, Burnett said he would be willing to leave New York for Pittsburgh. This puzzled many people, but true to his character, it was something Burnett had thought about. In 2011, he followed how the Pirates were playing and he saw something in their good stretches early on in the season.
“I always enjoyed going to Pittsburgh when I was with the Marlins,” Burnett added. “I loved the stadium. It’s a beautiful place to play, it’s a big yard. And I know it’s a sports town. If they win, that place will go absolutely berserk.”
But more than anything, Burnett said he wanted to go to the Pirates because “it seemed like they really wanted me.”
It is hard to imagine a major league player caring if any team really wanted him. But for all of the questions people have asked about Burnett over the years -- questions about what makes him click, questions about his seemingly rough outside yet kind demeanor, questions about career highs and lows -- and never coming up with any good answers, the Pirates have figured it out.
The feeling of being wanted and needed by a team has reminded Burnett of who he is and why he plays the game. It has brought consistency to his pitching, mental toughness to every game and leadership to a young Pirates club. No, Burnett didn’t fade away when he came to the Pirates. In fact, he’s on a mission to invigorate baseball in the Steel City. A.J. Burnett’s story is now the Pirates' story.
“People are always asking me about career highs and this and that, but the more games we can win the closer we can get to our goal,” Burnett said. “I don’t really care about my stats right now. [Pittsburgh] is a sports town with great fans. Hopefully, we can do something special here.”