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2021 Hall of Fame: The Case for AJ Burnett

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Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates
Yeah, he can’t figure it out either.
Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Once upon a time, on May twelfth, 2001, AJ Burnett, then with the Florida Marlins, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. It wasn’t pretty—he walked nine, the second-highest number in a no-no—but it counted, so off went his cap and a game-used baseball to the Hall of Fame.

Be satisfied with that, AJ; it’s more than most MLB pitchers get.

Burnett pitched in the bigs for seventeen seasons, twelve of them after he got Tommy John surgery in 2003, three of them with the Pirates. His best year was 2008 with the Blue Jays when he went 18-10 with a 4.07 ERA. His four seasons there with a positive wins total was enough for the Yankees to offer him a fairly lucrative five-year deal, which is where he came across my radar.

Burnett’s nickname in my house during his Yankees tenure was Oh God No because that’s what I’d say when I found out he was starting. He was maddeningly inconsistent—in one outing he’d look like a world-beater, striking batters out with ease and getting tons of easy groundouts, and then in the next, he’d look like he’d never thrown a baseball in his life. In his three seasons with the Yankees, he led the American League in wild pitches twice. In 2011, he set the record for most wild pitches for an American League pitcher ever, 25, a record that still stands. He also hit a lot of batters; in 2010 he led the American League in that stat too.

He was older and a bit wiser when he came to the Bucs in 2012. He compiled a 35-28 record during his time in Pittsburgh with a 3.34 ERA, and he was a help in getting the Pirates to the postseason. Pirates fans like him, as evidenced by the reactions to his recent interviews after his HoF nomination—a nomination that is fairly baffling in my opinion.

When I read this year’s nomination list, I was less surprised by Barry Zito’s inclusion than by Burnett’s, although the two have similar regular-season records and I don’t expect Zito to sniff anywhere near five percent of the vote. Zito won a Cy Young Award, was a two-time All-Star, and had a 23-win season. Burnett never had a twenty-win season and squeaked in as an All-Star reserve in his last season, probably because it was his last season.

I’ll also contrast Burnett with a pitcher who was on the ballot for the first time last year, Josh Beckett, who was Burnett’s teammate on the 2003 World Series champion Marlins. Beckett threw a no-hitter (with far fewer walks) in 2014. He was a three-time All-Star, won twenty games in 2007, and came in second in Cy Young voting that year. His bones, however, were really made in the postseason. Few will forget his amazing performance in Game Six of the 2003 Series, and in his time in Boston, he was the guy who always seemed to step up when games were on the line.

Josh Beckett got no Hall of Fame votes.

If AJ Burnett gets any, that’s a travesty.