Last spring training, Sean Burnett may have been the most impressive Nationals pitcher. He made 10 appearances and allowed no runs, five hits and one walk in 9 1/3 innings. By the start of the season, then-Manager Jim Riggleman had tabbed him as a part-time closer.
Which is why it was stunning today when Burnett said this: “I struggled quite a bit last spring training. I wasn’t confident going into the season.”
Burnett followed up his tremendous 2010 season with a disappointing 2011, and he traced the struggles back to his spring training. His flawless performance in games did not help him prepare for the season, he said, and actually may have hurt. He breezed through innings with his sinker, allowing the competitive aspect of spring supercede the important part. Getting all those quick outs with his sinker, Burnett never found the feel for his offspeed pitches.
“That was the crucial thing when the season started,” Burnett said. “The breaking ball wasn’t where it needed to be. The changeup was terrible. It wasn’t ready for the season. … I never felt comfortable. I never felt like I had a real good idea of where the ball was going.”
Burnett spent the winter tinkering with grips, trying to find a way to get more movement on his pitches. The early returns this spring have been positive, never more so than during today’s impressive live batting practice. Burnett induced awkward swings and weak contact. One slider sawed Michael Morse’s bat in two, the barrel propellering all the way over the pitcher’s mound.
Burnett did not take any special satisfaction in breaking Morse’s bat, even if Morse did mash one of his sinkers off the top of the centerfield batter’s eye over the weekend. But he did get the feedback he wanted from the hitters’ swings.
“My biggest thing is, I need movement,” Burnett said. “Last year at times, I think stuff flattened out. As long as I’ve been pitching, that’s the key to my sinker, getting it off the end of the bat. I threw a couple good changeups. Just to see the contact and not getting the barrel to it, where they think it is and where the ball really ends up, is crucial for me.”
In the second half of 2010, Burnett became one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. He earned a key role in the Nationals bullpen at the start of last year, then spent the first half imploding. After July 17, he had a 5.67 ERA. Burnett eventually turned his season around by switching his position on the pitching rubber. This year, Burnett thinks he can avoid those early struggles with a different spring approach.
“Spring training numbers are useless, to tell you the truth,” Burnett said. “My best years were when my numbers were the worst. My innings were so quick last year – I threw sinkers and got a couple quick groundballs and got out of there – that I didn’t really get to work on pitches.
“It’s kind of my fault. I didn’t use spring training the proper way, maybe. This year, I’m going to try to throw more breaking balls for strikes and try to get my work in. If it is giving up runs or throwing some extra pitches, not every inning needs to be six pitches. Hopefully I can work on that and get the breaking ball going.”