For most of the second half of Spring Training, A.J. Burnett seemed to have a personal catcher in Tony Sanchez. They worked together at McKechnie Field. They worked together at Pirate City, with Sanchez joining Burnett on the trip for his B Games. That was rare, as every other pitcher just threw to Elias Diaz, who was already in minor league camp. The battery combo carried over to the regular season, when Sanchez caught the first game by Burnett.
That changed in Burnett’s second start, which came on Tuesday. The right-hander threw to Francisco Cervelli, which happened a few times during Spring Training. It’s also a pairing that took place many times in New York, prior to Burnett joining the Pirates. And with Sanchez likely to go down to Triple-A this afternoon to make room for Chris Stewart, it’s likely that Burnett will be pitching to Cervelli more often.
While Cervelli has plenty of time working with Burnett, there is a key difference between the Burnett that was in New York, and the Burnett that is now in Pittsburgh, pitching in what he says will be the final year of his career.
“I know him from a long time ago,” Cervelli said, on working with Burnett. “I think he’s different now. You don’t have the same power, but he’s able to locate very well. He’s fun to catch. He’s very good.”
Burnett also admitted that he’s a different pitcher than what he was in New York, and credited Cervelli for picking up on things quickly.
“You can tell from tonight that he’s done a lot of watching, done a lot of studying of how [Sanchez] and I attacked [Cincinnati], and just what I like to do,” Burnett said after the start on Tuesday.
In his time with New York, Burnett averaged 93-94 MPH with his fastball. This year he is averaging just under 91, after sitting just under 92 in 2014. He still pitches off the fastball, but is obviously more about hitting his spots now.
“When you’ve got 98 in your arm, sometimes you don’t need to hit strikes all the time,” Cervelli said of the old Burnett. “He’s got this big curveball. It’s uncomfortable [to hitters] the way he pitches. The ball runs too much. For the hitter, sometimes they’ve got to dive. He’s able to repeat that all the time. That’s the difference right now.”
Cervelli said that Burnett’s curveball is still the same, and noted that the control Burnett has of the pitch on the right side corner is “unbelievable.” That has helped him maintain the high strikeout totals, despite the loss in velocity.
It’s way too early for any trends to be legit, but Burnett has the highest strikeout rate in his career, and the highest ground ball rate in his career, which is a combo that probably comes from pounding the strike zone more often than he has at any point in his career. Burnett is more of a finesse pitcher than a power pitcher now, relying on movement with his fastball, and a big breaking pitch. He credits Cervelli for knowing these tendencies.
“We’ve always had a good relationship,” Burnett said. “He’s taken time to do that. A lot of guys mentioned it, that you’ve got to get to know your guys a little bit. Not just on the field, but the four days in between, tendencies, because those come out in the game. When you figure out your guys, you can handle them a little better.”
Burnett seemed to have developed a good relationship with Tony Sanchez in Spring Training, but he shouldn’t have any problems working with Cervelli from this point forward.
“I think you’re starting to see what we’ve got with him. That’s a hell of a catcher we picked up right there.”