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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
A.J. Burnett outduels a young A.J. Burnett

By David Schoenfield


I flipped over to the Cardinals-Pirates game in the fifth inning, with A.J. Burnett starting to get serious about a no-hit bid. He was locked up with Cardinals rookie Shelby Miller in a 1-0 duel and would retire the first 16 batters before hitting Daniel Descalso in the sixth. Miller allowed four hits in the first inning but then retired 15 in a row before Andrew McCutchen reached on an infield single in the sixth and later scored on Neil Walker's bouncer up the middle.

As I watched, it dawned on me: Shelby Miller is A.J. Burnett, circa 2000, when Burnett was a hard-throwing rookie with the Florida Marlins, with expectations to match his then-high 90s fastball and knee-bending curveball. Miller is a hard-throwing rookie with ability to develop into a staff ace.

So let me ask you this: If Miller ends up with Burnett's career, would you be disappointed?

That's a bit of a trick question, because while many do consider Burnett to be a pitcher who never reached his potential, he's still had a hell of a career, not that anyone ever suggests that. He has won 138 games and struck out his 2,000th career batter on Wednesday. He helped the Yankees win the World Series in 2009, which wasn't enough to erase the belief that he stunk up Yankee Stadium for three years.

But is it fair to evaluate a pitcher on what others believed he might have achieved? I don't know that it is. Sure, Burnett long had the reputation of the guy with the million-dollar arm and 10-cent head. But he never really had the command of his stuff to turn into a Cy Young-caliber pitcher. Besides, only 304 pitchers have ever won 138 games in the big leagues, and that includes guys who pitched underhanded in the 1880s while wearing collared uniforms and rosters consisted of 11 players. Only 68 pitchers have struck out 2,000 batters, although maybe you want to dismiss that since Burnett has pitched in the highest strikeout era in baseball history.

The point here: If Shelby Miller has A.J. Burnett's career, he will have done very well for himself, no matter what we think his potential is at age 22 and after just four major league starts.

Burnett took his no-hitter into the seventh inning of a game the Pirates won 5-0, but with two outs Carlos Beltran lined an 0-1 curveball into right-center for a double. Burnett's curve -- the rare knuckle-curve variety -- had been a good pitch for him, recording five strikeouts on the night, and Beltran's double was just the third hit off it this season (batters are 3-for-38 against it). Burnett was removed after that inning, finishing with a line of seven innings, one hit, no walks and eight strikeouts to earn his first win of 2013.

"My goal every time out is to throw a no-hitter. I know they are major league hitters that I'm facing and I respect them, but my job is not to give up hits. You should go to the mound with that mindset."

In 24 innings, Burnett had struck out 35, allowed just 17 hits and walked eight. At 36, maybe Burnett has finally learned the finer points of pitching. Which is kind of a shame, especially if Burnett follows through on his spring training suggestion that he may retire at season's end when his contract expires. Right when we learn to appreciate Burnett he may walk away.

Undoubtedly, some of his success with the Pirates -- he went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA last year -- is pitching in a comfort zone he never had with the Yankees. Last summer, Burnett said he had welcomed the trade to Pittsburgh because "it seemed like they really wanted me." Instead of being viewed as an underachiever, the Pirates viewed him as a good pitcher who could help the team.

As for Miller, he's off to a good start in his young career, with a 1.96 ERA through his first three starts. He doesn't throw consistently as hard as Burnett did when he was younger, but like Burnett, Miller uses a curveball as his primary offspeed weapon (hitters are 3-for-20 against it).

The promising start, while certainly a positive, will only serve to raise the already high expectations for Miller. But Burnett's career is a reminder that baseball isn't so easy, and no matter the talent a player possesses, let's not project stardom too quickly.