Burnett perfecting changeup this spring
Righty hopes a bigger offspeed arsenal will keep him off DL
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The story surrounding A.J. Burnett this spring is nothing new. The Blue Jays starter has dedicated his Grapefruit League starts to honing his changeup, much like he has during just about every Spring Training throughout his career.
In the past, Burnett abandoned the offspeed pitch in tough situations during the regular season. Lacking faith in his changeup, Burnett would revert back to the devastating curveball that's become his signature offering, limiting himself to being a two-pitch pitcher.
Burnett insists that things are different this time around. This spring, a broken index fingernail on his throwing hand -- courtesy of an unfortunate confrontation with the door on his Range Rover over the winter -- has forced the pitcher to limit his repertoire to a fastball and changeup. Recently, he's even allowed himself to test out a brand new slider.
On Monday, Burnett indicated that he could've applied a false nail to begin using his curveball about two weeks ago. Instead, he decided to take the mound and forgo digging a fingernail into the baseball's seams -- his method for firing the curve. This turn of events has allowed him to focus solely on adopting the changeup that he's given up on in the past.
"It's really opened my eyes this time," Burnett said. "I could've put a nail on probably a week and half ago or two weeks, if I wanted to. But I really wanted to take this opportunity to work on everything else and get it down to where I can be a four-pitch pitcher instead of a two."
Against the Pirates on Monday at McKechnie Field, Burnett took the mound as a three-pitch pitcher, with his curveball absent from the arsenal. In four-plus innings, Burnett's pitch count rose steadily to 78, including 48 strikes, and he was on the hook for four runs on four hits with four walks.
The results weren't pretty, but Burnett isn't worried about the box score. He's concentrating on the fact that he's finally getting to the point where he won't shake off a signal that isn't his overpowering fastball or a curve. That's something Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has enjoyed watching.
"Everybody who's played this game always reverts back to their strengths," Gibbons said. "So until you convince yourself that, 'Hey, I've got a pretty good one right here that I'm not afraid to use,' until you get to that point, it's tough.
"When the game's on the line, they're going to go with what they've always had, and naturally, you don't want to get beat on something that's not your pitch. But he's got a chance to turn that [changeup] into a good pitch."
Burnett's new approach -- referred to as "pitching" rather than "throwing" in baseball jargon -- is somewhat a product of discussions he's had with Toronto ace Roy "Doc" Halladay, who pitches more to contact than he relies on strikeouts. Burnett has been a dominant strikeout artist throughout his career, but he's also trying to learn from Halladay's pitching style.
"I'm going one pitch at a time," Burnett said, "as opposed to the past, where if I threw a bad one I'd get [mad] and I wouldn't throw it anymore. I'm working on this Doc philosophy of 'one pitch at a time,' and it works. I throw a couple bad ones and, instead of beating myself up, I'll throw the exact same pitch [again]."
"I'm trying to turn into a pitcher, as much as I don't want to," he added later. "I'm trying to and it's just hard, because I'm used to just raring back and throwing and throwing the hook, and that's all I really dealt with. I'm really working on sinking to both sides and this changeup that I plan on using. I plan on pitching, and pitching's going to keep me healthy."
Health has been a troublesome component in Burnett's career, with the right-hander spending 10 stints on the disabled list in nine seasons. In his last two years with the Blue Jays, who signed Burnett to a five-year contract worth $55 million prior to the 2006 season, the pitcher has been on the DL four times with various arm issues.
In his first two tours with Toronto, Burnett is 20-16 with a 3.85 ERA over 46 starts, posting a 10-8 record in each of the past two seasons. When he's been healthy and on the mound, Burnett has been the type of pitcher the Jays hoped they would get when they signed him.
Burnett is hoping that having other pitch options can help keep him healthy for an entire season with the Jays. Still, it's not like he's going to shy away from using his most effective pitch. Burnett said that he'll have a false nail applied this week and he'll probably begin throwing his curveball in his scheduled bullpen session on Thursday.
"I'm not really that worried about it, because my curveball always comes quick," Burnett said. "So I'm not too concerned. It's just a matter of being able to throw a couple in the bullpen before taking it out for the season."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.