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Q+A: A.J. Burnett

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The Pirates' starting rotation has been one of the best in baseball over the first half of the season. With one game to go before the break, their body of work has been brilliant.

Name Statistic Rank MLB
ERA 3.05 2nd
FIP 3.20 2nd
HR/9 0.59 1st
GB% 53.3% 2nd
Quality Starts 67% Tied for 1st
Game Score 57 2nd

As players scatter for the break, A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole are heading to Cincinnati for the All-Star Game. It's the first time since 1960 that Pirates will send two starting pitchers to the Midsummer Classic.

The Pirates' rotation is one of the most important reasons for team's success in the first half. With that in mind, I thought it would interesting to chat with each member of the staff and discuss the first half. The all agreed to what ended up being wide-ranging conversations over the course of the past few days. (Francisco Liriano agreed to talk but, unfortunately, we were unable to meet up because of a scheduling issue on my end. I hope to speak to him later this season.)

Over the next couple weeks, I'll publish a series posts from these conversations. Some of them will be straight Q & A format and will cover multiple topics. Others will just focus on a particular vignettes. For example, Jeff Locke told me the story behind the origins of his and A.J. Burnett's well-known friendship. Also, Charlie Morton provided what can only be interpreted as strong and, at times, emotional frustration at how Locke has been treated by the press and fans.

I'd like to thank Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and A.J. Burnett for being so gracious with their time. There are a lot of media demands made on players and each member of the staff not only agreed to chat, but even personally came to me to reschedule if there was a time conflict or if we weren't able to finish our conversations. They didn't have to do that.

A.J. Burnett Q & A

[lightly edited for brevity and clarity]

Entering the season, the starting rotation was seen a potential area of concern. As the break approaches, however, it's been one of the most consistent parts of the roster and a major reason for the club's success. Did you have a sense that the staff was going to be so deep? And what is your overall evaluation of the first half?

I think we all knew what we're capable of. Doing it was a different story. I think that nobody wants to be that guy [that doesn't produce]. We feed off one another. I'm going to try to keep going what Cole did, and Frankie wants to follow me. It's just been fun to line up that way. We're all buying in on how good we are and can be, but at the same time, these are major league hitters. I think our focus, our one pitch at a time mentality, has been amazing.

Is this one of the better staffs you've been part of?

Number-wise, yeah. And talent-wise, too. The past couple of years I've been here we've been great. And it helps when guys are scoring a few runs and getting key hits. And we've got guys behind us on the defense that you just want [hitters] to pound it in the ground. We have an outfield that can chase everything down.

I think when you have that belief in yourself and that belief in who is behind you and who is calling your pitches [it's a winning formula]. [Chris] Stewart has been huge for Gerrit, Cervey's been great for everybody else. It's probably one of the more impressive [staffs] I've been on.

In terms of you're first half, you've been able avoid home runs and force ground balls. You mentioned in Detroit that so much of your success is keeping the sinker down. Is that the key some of those numbers this season?

Yeah, you're going to get hit when you're up in the zone. Me and Charlie [Morton] talk about it all the time because he has a sinker that goes down, and I have a sinker that does both. There's a time for both. But just focusing on keeping it down is the key. Like I mention to these guys, let them pound it on the ground. I'm going to have my strikeouts here and there. You know, a handful. But I'm not the guy I used to be, so let's get some movement down in the zone. When you're up you're going to get hurt.

You were here with the Pirates for Gerrit's rookie season. You didn't see him on a daily basis last year. What are your impressions of his maturation from his rookie season to now?

Me being a strikeout guy, I've noticed he's getting strikeouts. I don't want to say it was a problem, but he wasn't getting a lot of swings and misses when he first got called up. And it's like, wow! This guy's throwing plus-plus stuff and there's no punchouts. But now you're seeing him put together strikeouts.

I think the way he slows down the game has been big for him. I mean, he thinks a lot, which is good and bad. But that's Gerrit. When the game speeds up on him, he's found a way to slow it down. And as long as he keeps doing that, he's going to be great.

What has Francisco Cervelli meant to the staff?

I played with him in New York. I was a different pitcher in New York. I was a four-seam, curveball guy. I didn't do what I do now. But you know, it's not easy for a guy to come in and replace the guy we had here. He hasn't been healthy for a full year in a long time. He's showing what he can do when he is healthy and he's out there every day.

He's a ball of energy, man. That's all I can say. I can just speak for myself because of how he catches me. He knows what I want to do all the time. There's really no shaking [off pitches] and second-guessing. There's never a time we're not on the same page. If anything, it's execution if we get beat.

He was fun to throw to in New York. He was a lot younger and a lot quieter, a different guy. But he had the same heart he had a kid. He loves baseball and he just wants to play and show Pittsburgh how good he is.

I see you with your boys here all the time. They are of an age now that the memories they are having are going to be so rich and will stick with them. You're here in Pittsburgh during your final year and it's been storybook, so far. How cool has this season been so far? And are you at all reconsidering your decision to retire?

I'm not reconsidering. Having them in here reminds me why this is my last year. The way they are eating it up. Ashton [Burnett's younger son] in Washington the other day said, ‘God, what kid gets to do this?' I was like, ‘Who are you?' That's a humble thing to say. My oldest [A.J. Jr.] is really good. He's 14 now. He's just so proud and happy that I'm back here because they love the guys in this locker room. There so happy here and that means more than anything.