The Phillies have seen a lot of A.J. Burnett over the years. When he steps on the mound Monday night at Citizens Bank Park, it will be the 20th time in his career he’s gone to work against Jimmy Rollins and company.
The Phils have hit him around a bit – he’s 6-9 with a 5.06 ERA and 1.52 WHIP, and has averaged just 5.8 innings per start.
But Burnett over the last two years has transformed himself into a more mature, more accurate pitcher. He went 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA in 2012, his first year with the Pirates. It was his lowest ERA since 2005, and he walked just 2.8 batters per nine innings, his lowest mark in any full season of his career.
And he’s off to a remarkable start in 2013. In four games, Burnett has a 2.63 ERA, a National League-leading 35 strikeouts and only eight walks in 24 innings. The only two NL pitchers who have induced more swings-and-misses are Matt Harvey and Jeff Samardzija.
“He was a thrower with big stuff early [in his career],” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review after Burnett flirted with a no-hitter against the Cardinals last Wednesday. “The big inning was problematic for him. The wild pitches were in play. [Against St. Louis] he had fastball command, all four corners, breaking ball back-door and back-foot for strikes.”
“My dad texted me [after the game]: ‘Best command. Who is that guy out there?’” Burnett added.
On top of the strikeouts and improved control, Burnett remains an incredible source of groundballs. His 55 percent groundball rate ranked fourth in the majors last year, and he was the only one of the top four who is also a strikeout pitcher. Of the 938 batters Burnett has faced since the start of 2012, exactly 500 have either struck out or grounded out.
To beat him on Monday night, the Phillies will need to make solid contact on the few pitches he elevates. They did it in the first inning Sunday night against sinkerballer Jake Westbrook, spitting at his low sinkers and waiting for something to drive. After that first inning, though, Westbrook got into a groove and the Phillies made 10 outs on the ground.
Ryan Howard has taken Burnett deep three times, but is 0 for 11 with six strikeouts otherwise. Boom or bust.
Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Michael Young -- three players who don’t strike out often -- have gone down swinging or looking 28 times in 106 at-bats.
Expect to see a lefty-heavy lineup. Lefties are batting .263 with a .404 on-base percentage against Burnett; righties are 7 for 49 (.143) with one walk and 22 strikeouts.