Jason Mackey: What A.J. Burnett sees in Pirates' Paul Skenes and Jared Jones and their 'fifth day' mentality

Jason Mackey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Baseball

PITTSBURGH — Nearly 25 years ago, the fiery rookie toed an MLB rubber for the first time, and A.J. Burnett's winding career took him from the Miami Marlins to the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees before joining the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's arguably here where Burnett's approach has resonated most.

The tattoos, the scowls, the right-hander instructing Hanley Ramirez to take a seat back in 2012. And, of course, Burnett playing a pivotal part in the Pirates returning to the postseason.

Sound familiar? It should.

I know when I watch Paul Skenes and Jared Jones, it's hard to not think of Burnett and the schedule that links all three: terrific people off the mound ... and absolute jerks on the days they start, that second part meant in the most endearing way possible.

"That always came natural to me," Burnett was telling me by phone recently. "I wanted to make sure they knew I belonged here and that I'm not going anywhere.

"It's also just ... competing. That's my plate. This is my game. I'm in control."

Burnett announced his presence with authority as well as anyone, early in his career sometimes letting that intensity bubble over before later learning how to harness it and bring it out at the appropriate time.

It's certainly something Burnett sees in Skenes and Jones when he watches the Pirates' two young pitching phenoms, their nasty stuff and confident demeanors jumping off the screen.

"It's one of those things you can't teach," Burnett said. "It just comes out. To have the [stuff] they have on the mound also helps."

There's a trick to operating this way, Burnett explained. It's something he learned from Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia, and it's how he carried himself while pitching for the Pirates from 2012-13 and again in 2015.

Put in the work during the four days between starts and live a normal life. Then on the fifth, allow yourself to become a maniac. The trick is to not become that person all the time.

"You can't just be in that same mentality all the time or everybody will think you're a [jerk]," Burnett said. "It's also tough to stay that way. ... You have to be able to relax and be yourself."

For Burnett, that often came with riding quads or spending time with family. Skenes and Jones haven't reached that second part yet — other than dogs — but they're easily two of the more grounded, mature and likable players I've covered.

They come from good families. They're exceedingly humble, normal and accessible off the field. But when they start ...

"It's the same thing with Mitch [Keller]," Burnett continued, bringing up someone he's mentored. "You see him on the mound, he's ultra competitive. Then I finally got to meet him, and he had this big old smile, just a super good dude.

"I haven't met Paul or Jared yet. I look forward to it, of course. But you have to have that fifth day in you. And then you need to learn how to turn it off."

Though Burnett isn't the type to sit and watch an entire game at once, he watches highlights every morning and loves when they involve Skenes and Jones.


Their confidence in themselves certainly comes through, the same for their triple-digit velocity and nasty breaking stuff.

It brought Burnett back to the early stages of his own career, when he made his MLB debut for the Marlins in 1999 and pitched to a 3.48 ERA in seven starts before truly hitting his stride two years later.

One signature moment for Burnett came 23 years and a day earlier than Skenes debuted — May 12, 2001, when Burnett pitched a no-hitter against the Padres. The craziest part was that Burnett walked nine, which represents three more free passes than Skenes has issued in his six starts to this point.

But they also have or had impressive fastballs, a means with which to challenge opposing hitters and a consistent desire to do exactly that.

"I didn't have the off-speed stuff they have," Burnett said. "From what I've seen, they handle themselves well in situations where some other young guys might not. That's always a positive. But the edge is definitely what everybody notices and loves."

It's hard to think of someone in recent Pirates history who did that better than Burnett.

Andrew McCutchen was and remains an important part of Pirates history. But having Burnett, the same as Russell Martin, the Shark Tank and many others, inspired a cool confidence among Pirates fans, affording them a reason to puff out their chests.

It's the same prideful feeling that should consume PNC Park when Skenes takes the ball on Monday against the Reds.

"I enjoy watching those two," Burnett said. "The fans, too. I see it. They're loving it, and they should. Eat it up. They're watching something special right now."

Starting pitchers set the tone. Always have, always will. And although there will always be different ways of arriving at the same end point, it's fits our city well that Jones and Skenes have a Burnett mentality in them. That unquestioned intensity when they start, the laser focus and willingness to pitch with emotion, inspiring those around them.

The one thing Burnett wishes for Jones and Skenes, of course, is health.

When he was younger, Burnett admitted that he felt invincible. Arm injuries were a myth until he had Tommy John surgery in 2003 and missed the Marlins' World Series run. Returning from that and sustaining a career until 2015 changed his perspective.

"Take care of that wing — it's important," Burnett said. "Those two have a chance to pitch a long time and be good for a long time. That comes with being healthy."

And as Skenes and Jones experience more and more success, Burnett will absolutely be watching. Hopefully soon enough from PNC Park.

"You got two young phenoms with some pretty nasty stuff," Burnett said. "Composure and competing-wise, I like how they carry themselves on the mound.

"Again, I don't follow everything. But when you have special things like what [Skenes and Jones] are doing, it's hard to not pay attention."

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