Originally posted on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 8/2/12

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been one of the best stories in a year full of “Cinderellas” for Major League Baseball.

Sitting at 60-44 heading into August, as the NL Central’s 2nd place team and not far behind the Reds, Pirates fans are gearing up for the playoffs. They hope their beloved Bucs can make it there for the first time in 20 years.

Within the team, there are a number of great individual story lines, including MVP Candidate Andrew McCutchen, who we’ve previously discussed on MSF.

A headline that’s rivaling “The Cutch” for the best of the Bucs is their resurgent ace and Comeback Player of the Year candidate, A.J. Burnett.

Burnett had a no-no at Wrigley Field Tuesday night with only 4 outs to go. Credit: Getty Images

A.J. Burnett’s 2012 Comeback

We all know the story of A.J. Burnett: unlimited potential but inconsistent execution throughout his big league career, which is now over 13 seasons long.

Ever since Burnett broke into the bigs with the Florida Marlins, everybody has spoken highly of his lively arm and phenomenal “stuff.” But overall, he has not quite been able to put it together, certainly not on a consistent basis. You can check out his yearly statistics here.

As you can see, he’s never really been able to put it all together. His best years are as follow:

  • 2002: 12-9, 3.30 ERA
  • 2004: 7-6, 3.68 ERA
  • 2005: 12-12, 3.44 ERA
  • 2007: 10-8, 3.75 ERA
  • 2008: 18-10, 4.07 ERA

He did mix in a couple other solid seasons, either with a decent record or ERA, but those five were the seasons that stood out to me as the most balanced throughout his career. The first four I listed are his best years ERA-wise, and ’08 was included due to his impressive win-loss record.

In 2012, Burnett has been phenomenal.

Hs he currently stands with a 13-3 with a 3.27 ERA. It will most likely be his most successful season to this point for not only his record, but his ERA too. And the ERA doesn’t quite do justice to his dominant campaign.

If you eliminate just one start from his 2012 resume, that 3.27 would be a lot lower. On May 2nd, he let up 12 earned runs in 2.2 innings against the Cardinals. If you scratch that start from the rest of his season, he’d have a 2.45 ERA (according to my math).

So let’s say we were discussing a pitcher on an up-and-coming, young, and exciting squad with a 13-3 record and a 2.45 ERA. All of the sudden you’ve got a Cy Young candidate on your hands. Of course, Burnett can’t get that May start written off, but looking at the difference of one bad day really puts into perspective just how well he’s throwing in 2012.

Can He Overcome These NL Comeback POY Contenders?

Burnett is the front-runner for the NL Comeback POY Award. There are some other solid candidates who will certainly give him a run for his money though:

David Wright

Hitting .333 with 16 HR and 71 RBI, Wright has had an incredibly consistent andproductive season. He missed a good chunk of 2011, which had him as an afterthought as far as the league’s best sluggers. He’s definitely got his name back in that discussion in 2012.

Stephen Strasburg

The Washington Nationals’ ace and league-leader in strike outs missed nearly all of 2011, which rendered him a huge question mark for 2012. Sure enough, he’s bounced back dominantly so far this year. The question of his “innings limit” is looming large on all baseball fans’ minds.

Buster Posey

A stat line of .318/14/62 is pretty darn good for anyone, let alone a catcher. But Posey is not just any catcher. He is a young fan favorite who helped the Giants win the World Series in ’10 and missed most of 2011 after the brutal collision at the plate that landed him on the DL.

While all of these guys are having phenomenal years and deserving a lot of credit, I’m still sticking to my guns with Burnett as the best candidate of the group.

I like to see the Comeback POY be more of a story about overcoming recent struggles, not just playing well after being injured. While I think those three guys will still be considered, Burnett’s story – finally putting it all together after so many up and down years while leading a great young team – is the most fitting for the award.

With many pitchers bouncing back strong from Tommy John surgery nowadays, I don’t think Strasburg will be one of the leading candidates. And Wright has “been there (atop the league) before” and didn’t even miss anywhere near all of last season.

Posey, on the other hand, is who I think will be the top candidate along with Burnett.

Posey’s injury was so widely talked about last year because of its brutality. It wasn’t a freak accident like most injuries in baseball are, but a product of a baserunner’s choice to take Posey out at the plate. Everyone felt badly for he and the San Francisco fan base that had to watch him be shelved for so long.

There were many questions about whether or not he’d really be able to recover baseball-wise, but he’s surely done so and much, much more. I think his story is more of a “feel-good” type than the others, which is ultimately why I’ll put him as the other favorite for NL Comeback POY with A.J. Burnett.

Scott Cousins’ collision with Posey in 2011. Credit: InFlexWeTrust.com

Should Burnett Be a Cy Young Candidate?

But let’s not overlook Burnett as far as another baseball award goes.

Like mentioned previously, Burnett’s numbers would be dominant and Cy Young Award-worthy if you could scratch that one awful start against the Cardinals back in May. Who knows, maybe he puts together a few more starts as dominant as his last one at Wrigley Field, moves his ERA below 3.00, and jumps into the discussion of NL Cy Young.

He’s certainly got the pure ability to do so. Often you hear people say “he’s got no-hit stuff every night out.” Well that’s the case with A.J. Burnett, so look out, National League.

This resurgent star’s season has already been great, and it has the ability to take the next step up into the class with R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain, and the other NL’s other 2012 elites every time he takes the mound.

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