On July 19, Sean Burnett sat in the bullpen in Houston with pitching coach Steve McCatty and three teammates, trying to find some way to reverse a season gone wrong. Two days prior, Burnett had allowed a game-tying home run to Braves catcher Brian McCann, which raised his ERA after 42 games to 5.67. “I had of enough of it,” Burnett said. “I just kind of said, ‘It can’t get any worse.’ ”
In that meeting, Burnett turned his year around by moving 18 inches. Burnett requested he move across the pitching rubber, from the third base side of the slab to the first base side. McCatty relented. Burnett threw a bullpen session, pinch-hitter Matt Stairs standing at the plate and offering feedback. He pitched in a game that night from the first base side, and he has not stopped since.
The results have been dramatic, a small change making a huge difference. Since Burnett switched sides of the rubber, he has appeared in 22 games and allowed three earned runs in 192 / 3 innings, good for a 1.37 ERA. “He’s been as good as anybody I’ve had out there for the last 30 games,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
The only thing Burnett changed was his position on the rubber, which changed everything. Burnett grew up pitching from the left side of the rubber, which, along with his funky, three-quarters delivery prevented left-handed hitters from seeing the ball coming out of his hand and made the ball seem strangely far away to right-handed hitters.
But in 2005, Burnett underwent both Tommy John surgery and a related shoulder surgery. When he returned in 2006, he could not extend his arm as far as he could before. Throwing the ball over the plate while standing on the first base of the rubber required full extension. “I had to go to the third base side to try and baby it over the plate,” Burnett said.
Burnett forged his major league career standing on the right side of the mound. Last year, he posted a 2.14 ERA in 63 innings, which earned him a two-year contract from the Nationals.
“Still, it was never comfortable,” Burnett said. “I hadn’t been comfortable on the third base side for two or three years. I’d been wanting to go to the first base side, but when you’re having success, no coach is going to let you do it.”
In the first half this season, Burnett had little success. In order to save his season, McCatty listened and let him pitch from the left side of the rubber.
“I guess when you’re struggling, they’ll let you try anything that’s going to help,” Burnett said. “I’ve been wanting to over to that side, so maybe the first half was a good thing. It gave me, not an excuse, but a reason to try something new.”
He ran the idea past Rick Ankiel, a left-handed hitter whom he had pitched against both before and after surgery. Ankiel told him he was tougher to hit against from the left side. Stairs told him the same thing. Livan Hernandez encouraged Burnett to change sides, too.
“It’s such a huge difference,” Burnett said. “It doesn’t seem like it’d be such a big difference, but the arm angle and the angles the hitter gets, it’s damn near impossible to pick it up.”
Outside the field, the change is hardly evident. Burnett said his parents have not even noticed the difference. Opposing hitters have, though. During batting practice, hitters from other teams have approach him and told him how much more difficult to face he has been.
“I’ve felt better since I moved over the other side of the rubber,” Burnett said. “It just gave me the old feel where I used to pitch from my entire career. I kind of went back to my old ways. It’s definitely more comfortable. It’s where I pitched most of my life.”