The final piece of Burnett’s career path was last year, when he broke out as one of the Nationals’ key bullpen pieces. Left on the cutting-room floor was how, exactly, that happened. Burnett’s emergence last season hinged on two additions to his arsenal that allowed him to attack the strike in more ways than he ever had before.
Burnett began the season having struggles with left-handed batters – “I was sloppy with my lefties,” he said. He talked with left-handed hitting teammates Adam Dunn and Adam Kennedy, and they told him he should throw his sinker inside to lefties. Burnett has always shied from that, having been told that left-handed hitters prefer the ball inside and low.
But Dunn and Kennedy convinced Burnett that, with his side-winding motion, it would work. Burnett listened, and he realized left-handed hitters tended to make weak contact on his inside sinker, and his willingness to throw it made his slider more effective.
“When I can get that sinker low and in to lefties, it’s a tougher pitch for them to get the barrel to,” Burnett said. “It opens up that slider to me on the outer half.”
Midway through last season, Ivan Rodriguez began calling for Burnett to throw his slider inside to right-handed batters. He had developed the pitch in 2008, after surgery, and he rarely used the pitch against righties, and when he did he kept it outside, trying to sneak it over the outside corner. But Rodriguez had unlocked one of Burnett’s best weapons.
The slider’s tight spin made it look like a fastball that will cross the bottom of the strike zone, only to dive down and in at their shin; last year, Atlanta Braves infielder Martin Prado swung at a slider that bounced on home plate. Burnett’s changeup is roughly the same speed and veers away from right-handed batters.
“You got one [pitch] going away from a right-hander,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “Now you got one that’s biting down at your ankle. It’s hard to make that adjustment and lay off it.”
Here’s the difference throwing his slider to right-handed batters made: During 2008 and 2009, right-handed batters posted an .817 OPS against Burnett. Last season, right-handed batters compiled a .487 OPS against Burnett, second in the majors among left-handed pitchers, behind only Dodgers all-star Hong-Chih Kuo.
Having discovered new, more effective ways to attack hitters on both sides of the plate, Burnett prospered. He allowed six earned runs in 32 1/3 innings after the all-star break, a 1.67 ERA, while striking out 33 – 9.2 per nine innings – and walking nine. In his final 26 1/3 innings, he allowed three earned runs.
Burnett said he tries to record quick outs, induce contact early in counts. “I never was a guy who was going to blow you away,” Burnett said. “I’m going to sink it. My changeup was my best pitch since I was a little kid. I wish I would have taken the same approach starting that I take now relieving. Just pound the zone and try to get quick outs. Don’t give the hitter too much credit. Just go right after him.”
Whether or not Burnett realizes it, he’s become a strikeout pitcher. His mix of pitches keeps hitters guessing, and he’s actually increased his velocity – last year, he reached 94 miles per hour with fastball, and it moves. When Burnett says he never realized he had the stuff to close, he may not give himself credit. Together, his pitches can be simply overpowering.
FROM THE POST
Here’s that story on Sean Burnett’s winding career path.
Sheinin catches up with Adam Dunn, who is still hilarious and still stinks in spring training.