Pirates Notebook: Burnett Takes Mound As NL Strikeout Leader

A.J. Burnett
A.J. Burnett has the NL’s most strikeouts, and Astros’ hitters have struck out the most times in MLB. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

A.J. Burnett will start Saturday night with the most strikeouts (72) in the National League and 25,000 bobbleheads with his face in the PNC Park stands.

While he trails MLB leader Yu Darvish (86 strikeouts), Burnett faces a Houston offense that has struck out the most times in baseball this season. Burnett’s strikeout rate has jumped to a career-best 31.6%, but manager Clint Hurdle wants to make sure his staff ace is not only hunting for K’s.

“Two- and three-pitch outs are good,” Hurdle said. “Those are probably what he’s gonna try to focus a little bit on as well,” as Burnett knows there are only so many pitches left on his arm at age 36.

MLB Leaders — Strikeouts Per Nine Innings

  1. Yu Darvish (TEX) — 12.8
  2. A.J. Burnett (PIT) — 11.6
  3. Ryan Dempster (BOS) — 11.4
  4. Anibal Sanchez (DET) — 11.3
  5. Max Scherzer (DET) — 11.3
  6. Jeff Samardzija (CHC) — 10.2

Hurdle credits Burnett’s success in 2013 with finding a rhythm on the mound, the breaking ball being a “big pitch,” and using more of his two-seam fastball that drops late to generate whiffs.

Burnett has certainly gotten more hitters to swing-and-miss, maintaining a whiff rate he has not seen since 2004 with the Florida Marlins. He has also earned more called strikes, though, with umpires calling 20% of his pitches strikes this season compared to 18.7% last season. Some credit must be given to strong pitch-framer Russell Martin, who caught the first seven of Burnett’s nine starts and is back at catcher Saturday night.

Bedard Returns to PNC Park

The Pirates face a foe they know well Saturday in Astros’ starting pitcher Erik Bedard. In six starts and two relief outings this season, Bedard has posted a career-worst 6.67 ERA and 1.67 WHIP, along with 31 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Familiarity runs both ways, but Hurdle said he has faced pitchers in the past that did not use close quarters with a former team to their advantage.

“You’d see them talking to a pitcher out there and you’d say ‘I wonder what he’s talking about,'” Hurdle said. “And I had a coach say one time, ‘He’s probably asking him what to throw these guys because he didn’t pay any attention to anything that went on last year.”

Erik Bedard Pirates
Erik Bedard had a 5.01 ERA in 24 starts with the Bucs. (Image Credit: Pittsburgh Pirates)

Such a fact would not necessarily apply to Bedard, but Hurdle noted that if the left-hander leaves pitches over the plate, “we’ll have every opportunity to do some damage.” Though Bedard’s strikeout rate is higher, he is allowing career-worst hit totals and averaging one home run given up per three innings. Former teammates like Neil Walker can gleam bits of intel from last year.

“You have a better idea of how he’s going to attack you as a team,” Walker said. “But you have to stick to your plan.”

Though Walker struggles as a right-handed hitter, Bedard’s split between lefties and righties is minimal, and he actually is better at striking out right-handed hitters. If Bedard has been anticipating a return to PNC Park, he will not say as much.

“It’s like pitching against anybody else. You do the best you can,” Bedard said.

Changes to the Pitching Staff?

New relief additions Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson, Vin Mazzaro and Bryan Morris are all maintaining an ERA below 3.00. Their efforts have helped the Pirates to baseball’s best bullpen ERA at 2.74 and bullpen WHIP at 1.13.

But the Pirates are still keeping an eye on Triple-A for supplemental relievers, as it’s significant that Wilson and Melancon are in the Top 12 among innings pitched by NL relievers. Just my opinion, but Indianapolis relievers Vic Black (2.66 ERA, 33 K, 11 BB in 23.2 IP) and Duke Welker (1.42 ERA, 23 K, 11 BB in 19 IP) could be seeing time in Pittsburgh at some point.

As for what the rotation will end up becoming, with James McDonald (shoulder inflammation) possibly throwing a bullpen session Tuesday…

“Everything is in pencil right now,” Hurdle said. “[McDonald] feels good, and that’s why we are talking about Tuesday.”

Bonus Points!

  • Astros second baseman Jose Altuve is back in the lineup after the passing of his grandmother. Infielder Jake Elmore, involved in Friday’s game-ending error, was sent down to Oklahoma City. Manager Bo Porter said before Friday’s game Elmore would return to Triple-A.
  • Left-handed relievers Justin Wilson and Tony Watson will likely not be available Saturday night. It will be all right-handers in the Pirates bullpen.
  • RHP Jared Hughes arrived to PNC Park after Midnight due to flight delays, so he was actually unavailable for Friday’s game. Jason Grilli was unavailable Friday as well, as Hurdle gave him two days of rest. Jose Contreras remains on the bereavement list through at least Monday.
  • Infielder John McDonald (elbow, back) could be a candiate for a rehab assignment at some point. He told trainers about his elbow injury after he was taken out with a back injury.
  • Infielder Chase d’Arnaud (thumb) and pitcher Jeff Karstens are with the Altoona Curve on Saturday for their rehab assignments. More on d’Arnuad from Tim.
  • Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Matt Garza is slated to make his 2013 debut Tuesday night against the Pirates. Last year, Garza had a 3.91 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 103.2 innings.
  • Former Colorado Rockies shortstop Reid Brignac garnered interest from the Pirates, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, but Brignac was traded to the New York Yankees.
  • Hurdle on Friday night’s wild victory: “I’m not sure that is a game we won the last two seasons… We’ve played through things where I think they had more of a lingering effect in the past.”
  • Hurdle on the crowd 29,743 at PNC Park during a Penguins playoff game: “We’ll continue to earn our way. The crowd attendance was indicative of us finding our way and earning our way last season.”
  • Pirates Playoff Odds: 41% (combining Baseball Prospectus and Clay Davenport)


Houston Astros (11-31, 16 games out in AL West)

  1. CF Robbie Grossman (.207 batting average)
  2. LF Trevor Crowe (.250)
  3. 2B Jose Altuve (.333 average, sixth in AL)
  4. C Jason Castro (.237)
  5. RF Chris Carter (.220, 9 homers)
  6. 1B Carlos Peña (.234)
  7. 3B Matt Dominguez (.245)
  8. SS Marwin Gonzalez (.250)
  9. LHP Erik Bedard (0-2, 6.67 ERA)

Pittsburgh Pirates (25-17, 2.5 games out in NL Central)

  1. LF Starling Marte (NL-best .417 average vs. lefties)
  2. RF Jose Tabata (.282)
  3. CF Andrew McCutchen (.276, 6 homers)
  4. 1B Gaby Sanchez (.254)
  5. C Russell Martin (.279, 6 homers)
  6. 3B Brandon Inge (.240)
  7. 2B Neil Walker (.255)
  8. SS Jordy Mercer (.250)
  9. RHP A.J. Burnett (3-4, 2.73 ERA)
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But aren’t Black and Welker racking up innings at the same rate as the guys in the major league pen?

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