A.J. Burnett will make the final regular season start of his career tonight, as the Pirates look to lock up home field for Wednesday's Wild Card game.
Burnett and the Pirates forged a symbiotic relationship over his three years with the franchise. After posting a five-plus ERA in consecutive seasons with the Yankees, the right-hander arrived in Pittsburgh in 2012 looking like a veteran on the downside of his career. But with the assistance of the Pirates' pitching philosophy, which he embraced, and defensive shifts, which he initially resisted, Burnett has posted a 3.33 ERA over 550 innings with the team.
"He'll be the first one to tell you, we asked him to do some things that kind of caught him off guard walking in the door," Hurdle said. "And he said, ‘Ok, I'm in.'"
Burnett's contributions on the mound are quantifiable. Since 2012, his 10 WAR ranks second highest among all Pirates starters. He's added 2.49 in win probability and 35 traditional pitching wins.
"We asked him to be an ace," Hurdle said. "A.J.'s rolled up his sleeves and done his job since he's been here."
But Burnett's influence has been perhaps most felt off the field, where he his veteran presence and willingness to tutor young pitchers on the staff is often cited by players and coaches alike.
"He poured into the guys," Hurdle said. "He's still pouring into guys. He's still interacting with guys. That's the part of him that maybe a lot people don't get to see."
No pitcher has a stronger relationship with Burnett than Jeff Locke. As Locke told me a few months ago, the friendship that emerged between the two of them was a turning point in left-hander's career.
"He helped me so much in 2012," Locke said. "You know what it is? To be honest, the biggest thing he taught me was to be confident in myself. And if you go out there and give up five runs in five innings, your confidence can't teeter. You just have to be confident."
This afternoon Locke reflected on Burnett's impact on the staff as a whole.
"He came here in 2012 and kind changed the personality of the team a little bit," Locke said. "Maybe he was a little more out-spoken. Maybe a little bit more gritty. There was something about him."
Burnett came to Pittsburgh with a reputation for being strong-willed. Hurdle is also is well-known for his strong personality, which has made it interesting to watch the relationship between the two evolve over time.
"He's made me a better manager, " Hurdle said. "It's the first time I've had an ace in the rotation. The other part that always gets interesting is that sometimes there's a difference of opinion on things. And I think what I've shared with him is I'm going to be honest with you, I want you to be honest with me."
Hurdle steered clear of discussing specific challenges that may have emerged in the relationship, although he did mention the well documented tension that followed the decision to start Gerrit Cole in Game 5 of the 2013 National League Division Series.
"From my perspective, he was a little bit more disengaged and upset after the 2013 season, when I gave the ball to Cole," Hurdle said. "That was disappointing to him and I understood."
One of the key features of Hurdle's leadership style is an emphasis on open and honest conversations with his players. It is that approach, he says, that's been the backbone of the healthy relationship he's maintained with Burnett over the years.
"We've grown [from our differences of opinions]," Hurdle said. "We talked through them. We've grown from them. ...We've gotten to a very good place relationally as far as player-manager. And we're both dads. We've shared some thoughts along those lines as well."
Cole officially named starter for Wild Card game
The Pirates officially confirmed the worst kept secret in the city: Gerrit Cole will start Wednesday's Wild Card game.
"We pretty much had it scripted out back in September," Hurdle said.
Cole was scheduled to be available for any potential game 163 scenario: play-in, Wild Card, or first game of division series.
"This was cut and dry back when we set the rotation," Hurdle said. "It didn't surprise him. He's humble, but it didn't surprise him by any means."