AJ Burnett a study of evolution in his Pirates return

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For most of his big league career, right-hander AJ Burnett relied heavily upon his fastball that sat in the mid-90s to get his strikeouts. With time, however, he’s seen his fastball velocity fade – but as evidenced by his first two starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season, he is now undoubtedly a pitcher, not just a ‘thrower.’

Through two starts, Burnett has been a bright spot in the Pirates’ rotation, despite a winless record. In a dozen innings of work, he’s averaging 11.3 stikeouts-per-nine, which isn’t the most impressive stat he owns; that would be his 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is two times better than his career mark of 2.26 SO/BB.  One of the most noted changes to Burnett has been his evolution from a hard-throwing ace to an arm who relies heavily upon a sinker to induce outs. Despite the change in approach, the righty has remained effective – as evidenced by his performance so far in 2015.

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This year, his fastball is barely averaging 90 mph – the lowest mark to-date for the almost-40-year-old hurler. Two years ago with the Bucs, AJ Burnett averaged 92.4 mph on his fastball, throwing it roughly 46 percent of the time – right in-line with his career average of 48.4 percent.  That season, he went 10-11 with a 3.30 earned run average while compiling 191 innings of work for the postseason-bound Pirates, but last year, things unraveled for Burnett with the Philadelphia Phillies.  His earned run average skyrocketed to 4.59 – although peripherals suggest he may have been hurt, to some degree, by a less-than-stellar defense behind him. He racked up 213 2/3 innings – the sixth time he reached the 200-inning plateau in 16 big league seasons, but he also led the National League with 18 losses.

This offseason, Pittsburgh brought AJ Burnett back to the Steel City for one last go-round, signing him to a one-year deal, upon the completion of which, he plans to retire from the game. And, at least through two starts, things are looking up for a perfect ending to Burnett’s career.

As evidenced by his first two starts for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season, he is now undoubtedly a pitcher, not just a ‘thrower.’

Last season, locating his change-up effectively was an issue for Burnett. He utilized that particular off-speed pitch just under 9 percent of the time in his 34 games on the hill – which was a noted increase from his career mark of 5.2 percent. This year, he’s used his change just 2 percent of the time – instead relying more heavily on his fastball, which he used less last season than in any one season in his career.

With his fastball and sinker usage up early on in 2015 – and his change-up usage down – Burnett appears to be getting back to the basics, relying on mixing speeds and location to be more effective in what will be his final go-round on a big-league mound. After posting a 1.90 strikeout-to-walk ratio with the Phillies last season, control is clearly improved back in black and gold as that mark has been notably better, as explained above.

It may only be two games, but after media and fans questioned just how effective he would be and what he had left in the tank after nearly two decades in Major League Baseball, it’s got to feel good to be AJ Burnett right now.

Next: The not-so-secret weapon in Gerrit Cole's arsenal

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