Fourth in a series profiling the 11 members of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame class of 2016. The induction ceremony will be held March 4.
North Little Rock’s A.J. Burnett was the starting pitcher for the New York Yankees in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. Burnett won that game, but was the loser in Game 5. He will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame on March 4.
Change is rarely easy, especially for a hard-throwing major-league pitcher who sometimes allowed his emotions to get the better of him.
It was that way for North Little Rock native A.J. Burnett, but he evolved into a cagey veteran who became a mentor to teammates and made his only all-star team in his final season.
A.J. Burnett glance
BIRTHDATE Jan. 3, 1977
HOMETOWN North Little Rock
HIGH SCHOOL Central Arkansas Christian
MLB DEBUT Aug. 17, 1999
NOTEWORTHY Drafted by New York Mets in 1995. … Pitched a no-hitter for the Marlins against the San Diego Padres in 2001. … Limited to four starts in 2003 before missing rest of season because of Tommy John surgery. Was on injured reserve as Marlins won World Series that year. … Marlins franchise leader in complete games (14), shutouts (8) and strikeouts (753); third all-time in victories (49). … Also played for Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies. … Won Game 2 of the 2009 World Series, helping the Yankees to a championship. … Earned only all-star selection of his career in 2015, then missed nearly six weeks with elbow inflammation. … Ended career with 164-157 record with a 3.99 ERA and started at least 30 games in eight different seasons.
A.J. Burnett career statistics
YEAR TEAM W-L ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO
1999 FLA 4-2 3.48 7 7 41.1 37 23 16 3 25 33
2000 FLA 3-7 4.79 13 13 82.2 80 46 44 8 44 57
2001 FLA 11-12 4.05 27 27 173.1 145 82 78 20 83 128
2002 FLA 12-9 3.30 31 29 204.1 153 84 75 12 90 203
2003 FLA 0-2 4.70 4 4 23.0 18 13 12 2 18 21
2004 FLA 7-6 3.68 20 19 120.0 102 50 49 9 38 113
2005 FLA 12-12 3.44 32 32 209.0 184 97 80 12 79 198
2006 TOR 10-8 3.98 21 21 135.2 138 67 60 14 39 118
2007 TOR 10-8 3.75 25 25 165.2 131 74 69 23 66 176
2008 TOR 18-10 4.07 35 34 221.1 211 109 100 19 86 231
2009 NYY 13-9 4.04 33 33 207.0 193 99 93 25 97 195
2010 NYY 10-15 5.26 33 33 186.2 204 118 109 25 78 145
2011 NYY 11-11 5.15 33 32 190.1 190 115 109 31 83 173
2012 PIT 16-10 3.51 31 31 202.1 189 86 79 18 62 180
2013 PIT 10-11 3.30 30 30 191.0 165 79 70 11 67 209
2014 PHI 8-18 4.59 34 34 213.2 205 122 109 20 96 190
2015 PIT 9-7 3.18 26 26 164.0 174 64 58 11 49 143
TOTALS 164-157 3.99 435 430 2731.1 2,519 1,328 1,210 263 1,100 2,513
On March 4, Burnett, who retired at the end of 2015, will add the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame to his list of honors.
Burnett, 39, attended high school at Central Arkansas Christian and was an eighth-round pick of the New York Mets in the 1995 Major League Baseball Draft. He was traded by the Mets as part of a five-player trade to the Florida Marlins before the 1998 season, but he didn't play a full season for the Marlins until 2001.
Burnett was asked by the Marlins to leave the team Sept. 27, 2005, one day after making comments criticizing the organization.
"We played scared. We managed scared. We coached scared," he told MLB.com after the Marlins' 5-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. "I'm sick of it, man. It's depressing around here. It's like they expect us to mess up. And when we do, they chew us out. There is no positive, nothing around here for anybody."
Burnett learned of his future after a face-to-face meeting with then-Manager Jack McKeon. Burnett apologized afterward.
His career hit several high points along the way. He finished 31st on the all-time strikeout list with 2,513, more than hall of famers Christy Mathewson, Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. He compiled a 164-157 record with a 3.99 ERA and started at least 30 games in eight different seasons while pitching for five teams.
He threw a no-hitter for the Marlins against the San Diego Padres in 2001. He won Game 2 of the 2009 World Series -- when he outdueled Pedro Martinez by allowing one run in seven innings as the New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 3-1 -- to help the Yankees win a championship.
Burnett relied on four pitches for most of his career: a four-seam fastball and a sinker, both of which could reach 94 mph; a knuckle curveball thrown at 80-83 mph; and a changeup he used primarily to get ground balls from left-handed hitters.
As he got older and his velocity dropped, Burnett said the addition of another pitch was key.
"Learning to throw a two-seam fastball, for me, was huge because you've got to get movement along with velocity," Burnett said. "Had I not mastered that, I don't know what would have happened."
Burnett had his share of control problems, leading the majors twice (2009, 2011) in wild pitches and once (2010) in hit batters. That all seemed to change once Burnett added the two-seamer.
"His command got to a better place than it had ever been," said Pittsburgh Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle, who managed Burnett from 2012-2013 and again in 2015. "Throwing that two-seam fastball to all areas of the strike zone, along with the breaking ball. That combination was fun to watch."
Off-the-field moves also contributed to Burnett's success later in his career. He was traded from the Yankees to the Pirates in 2012, instilling toughness into the team and counseling a young clubhouse.
"He wanted to impact an organization," Hurdle said. "He was going to be our ace. I don't know if he had been 'the guy' before, but he was going to be our guy."
Hurdle said the Pirates were upfront with Burnett before agreeing to the trade.
"We shared what we wanted from him and asked if he was comfortable with it," Hurdle said. "He said he had never been presented with an idea like that and said yes. We told him we both had a clean chalkboard and could draw on it together."
Burnett said he enjoyed his time with the Yankees, but the move to Pittsburgh was good for him.
"It felt more like home, in a way," Burnett said. "I went there looking for a fresh start. They knew what they were getting, but there is always a what-if. I just went there to do what I can do and win games."
Burnett said he never realized the effect he had on teammates would be more important than his individual accomplishments.
"From day one, I was looked up to like I looked up to [pitcher Roy] Halladay with the [Toronto] Blue Jays," Burnett said. "It wasn't about the stats. I just went in there hoping to pitch as long as I could and hope it works out."
Burnett's evolution from a live-armed hurler to a bona fide pitcher was on display last season, when he went 9-7 with a 3.18 ERA and earned his only All-Star Game selection.
"I've been a hitting coach where I've had to put game plans together against A.J. back when he was a Marlin," Hurdle told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette. "I've seen the complete evolution, watching the man pitch. He was a thrower, and now he's flat-out become a pitcher, a very cerebral pitcher. It's not a coincidence; it was a choice."
Burnett took a more pragmatic approach when describing his transformation.
"The game changes," Burnett said. "If you can't change with the game, there's a problem. I had a live arm and threw hard for a long time, so I really didn't pay attention to certain aspects of the game. Once I learned about the mental parts of the game, things started to change for me. I did a lot of things in the middle of my career that if I hadn't been so stubborn, things would have been different."
Burnett announced his retirement in November 2014 when he re-signed with the Pirate after spending one season with the Philadelphia Phillies.
"It's that time," Burnett said told ESPN.com. "My wife has done a lot of things. She hasn't had a summer to herself in a long, long time. My boys are at an age now where I started coaching their basketball team in the winter time, and they want me to start coaching other things, too. I believe I could still pitch for a couple more years but I want to be able to walk away and be active around my kids for a couple of years before I start hobbling."
Information for this article was provided by Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Joe Frisaro of MLB.com and Christina Kahrl of ESPN.com.
Sports on 02/11/2016