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Top 60 All-Time Greatest Blue Jays: #55 A.J. Burnett

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images

Allan James Burnett | RHP | 2006 - 2008

A.J. Burnett was born January 3, 1977 in North Little Rock, Arkansas. The Mets drafted him in the 8th round of the 1996 draft, one of 3 from that round who made the majors. The Jays had the pick right before the Mets and picked Dave Marciniak, a shortstop.

In February of 1998, he was traded with Robert Stratton and Jesus Sanchez to the Marlins for Al Leiter and Ralph Millard. A.J. was called up in late August of 1999 and made 7 starts. In 2000 he came up about mid-season and made 13 starts. He had his first full season in the majors in 2001 and pitched a no-hitter for the Marlins (giving up 8 walks in the game), on May 12. He had Tommy John surgery in 2003, came back in 2004 but missed several games with an elbow injury. Burnett made 32 starts, in 2005, the first time in his career that he made over 30. It was great timing as he was a free agent after the season. A.J. is currently 5th in career wins, with 49, in Marlin history.

At the 2005 winter meetings, JP Ricciardi made a big splash, signing both B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett to massive, long term contracts. We gave A.J. a 5-year, $55 million contract that contained an opt-out clause after the 3rd year. The Jays were taking a significant risk, signing a pitcher that had many injury issues, over the years, to such a big contract, but Ricciardi thought that it was time to make a move to get to the top of the division.

We looked to have an excellent rotation, going into the 2006 season. Roy Halladay, Ted Lilly, Gustavo Chacin, Josh Towers, and A.J. all had good seasons in 2005. But Towers was awful in 2006, Chacin wasn’t great, and A.J. spent half the season on the DL. He started the season on the DL, with some troubles from some scar tissue from his Tommy John surgery back in 2003. He was activated in mid-April, made two poor starts, and went back to the DL. He came off it again on June 22, throwing a shut-out for his first Blue Jay victory, and played the rest of the season.

It wasn’t a bad year other than the injuries, going 10-8 with a 3.98 ERA in 21 starts. He struck out 118 and walked 39 in 135.2 innings. The team finished 2nd in the A.L. East but 10 games back of the Yankees.

In 2007 the Jays pitching staff had more than its share of injuries, Roy Halladay missed a month after an appendectomy, and B.J. Ryan had Tommy John surgery. A.J. stayed healthy until mid-June, going 5-6 with a 4.00 ERA to that point, then hit the DL with a shoulder strain. He came back for one start, on June 28, and then went back on the DL for July. Coming back in August, he went 5-2 the rest of the way.

He was pretty good when he did pitch, holding batters to a .214 batting average, second in the A.L., and getting more than a strikeout an inning. He was excellent against A.L. East opponents, going 7-1 against them. In all, he was 10-8, with a 3.75 ERA in 25 starts. He gave up 131 hits, 66 walks while striking out 176 in 165.2 innings.

2008 was Burnett’s best year with the Jays, managing to stay off the DL (though he started the season with a torn fingernail, after catching the finger in a car door), he went 18-10 with a 4.07 ERA in 34 starts. He also led the league in strikeouts with 231 and strikeouts per 9 innings with 9.4. He and Doc made a very successful top of the rotation, winning 38 games between then (Doc came in second in the Cy Young voting to Cliff Lee). A.J. set career highs for wins, innings pitched and strikeouts, finishing 3rd in the A.L. in innings and 4th in wins. He finished the season strong, going 13-6 over his last 19 starts and winning 8 of his last 9 starts. Fangraphs gives him a 5.5 WAR for that season, his career-best.

You might remember his last start of the season. He went 8 innings and when he came out of the game he got a standing ovation.

Timing has always been Burnett’s strong suit, having a great season before he could become a free agent in 2005 and then having the best season of his career right before he could opt out of his Blue Jay contract in 2007. He signed a 5-year $82.5 million contract with the Yankees in the off-season. I have no hard feelings towards A.J. for opting out. Any of us would have done the same, but I did enjoy watching his troubles with the Yankees. I was at spring training that year, and I enjoyed watching the Jays pound him in a spring game Against the Jays, he 3-4 with a 5.64 ERA in 10 starts.

He was pretty good, in 2008, for the Yankees, going 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 33 starts. At least for Jay fans, the highlight of that season was the May 12 start in Toronto, against Roy Halladay. The Jays and Halladay came out on top, with a 5-1 win, and A.J. was booed, loudly, throughout the game. After that first Yankees season, he’s had nothing but trouble in New York. I can’t say that I’m sad that he signed with them, as things turned out.

He pitched 3 seasons with the Yankees, going 34-35 with a 4.79 ERA in 99 games, 98 starts. The Yankees traded him to the Pirates, where he went 26 and 21 in 61 starts, with a 3.41 ERA in 2 seasons. Before the 2014 season he signed with the Phillies, putting up an 8-18 record and a 4.59 ERA in 34 starts, tying a career-high. Burnett went back to the Pirates for a final season going 9-7 with a 3.18 ERA.

Career, he was 164-157 with a 3.99 ERA in 435 games, 430 starts. As a Blue Jay, in 3 seasons, he was 38-26 with a 3.94 ERA in 81 games, 80 starts.

It seemed, at least from the outside, that A.J. was a good teammate in Toronto. He was friends with Halladay. Their friendly competition seemed to make both pitchers better. He started the Jays tradition of getting the star of the game with a shaving cream ‘pie,’ generally while the player was on camera.

A.J. won a lot of points with me by saying nice things about Halladay after Doc’s death:

He was a quiet, intimidating dude at the field, but I would elbow him in the ribs every chance I got, try to loosen him up. When I first signed in Toronto, my wife and I went to his house for dinner. I like my steaks medium, but Doc liked to cook his where it’s still blinking at you on the grill or mooing. I can’t eat anything red, but I crushed the rarest steak ever. My wife looked at me and I said, ‘Well wouldn’t you eat it, too? I wasn’t going to say anything; that was the best steak I’ve ever had in my life. I was so lucky to have gotten to know him, be around him and learn from him. It’s sad that it takes something like this to trigger your mind and make you appreciate the people you had in your life.

A.J. was pretty much a fastball/curveball pitcher for the Jays. He had one of the hardest fastballs in baseball at that time. He used the curve as his strikeout pitch, going to it when he was ahead in the count. Each game seems to depend on his feel for those two pitches. If he has them, he has been almost unhittable, but life isn’t as good when he doesn’t. As a Jay, he was 38-26, with a 3.94 ERA, in 80 starts. He had 525 strikeouts in 522.2 innings.

He had an immaculate inning for the Yankees June 20, 2009.

Burnett is married and has 2 children.

A.J. Burnett’s place among Blue Jay pitching leaders:

ERA (>500 innings): 14th, 3.94

Wins: 22th, 38

Winning %: 6th, .594

Strikeouts per 9 innings: 4rd, 9.040, 2nd among starters

Innings: 32nd, 522.2

Strikeouts: 21st, 525

He has a sense of humour: