CLEVELAND — Jake Burger was a first-round pick, largely on the strength of his bat. On draft night 2017, then-White Sox scouting director Nick Hostetler called him the best right-handed power hitter available. From a talent perspective, changing games by rocketing missiles all over Guaranteed Rate Field is what was envisioned from him.
But come on, this? Where Burger, having started the season in Triple A for the third-straight year, is off to the best start of any hitter on the team? Where every fan conversation centers around making sure he’s in the lineup (and ideally, higher than eighth), and the team is preparing offensive centerpiece Eloy Jiménez to play more right field to accommodate him? Who exactly expected this right now? Two hitless games in the past two days have dropped the 27-year-old Burger all the way to .271/.330/.667; a 166 wRC+, or 66 percent more run creation than the league-average hitter. It’s the best wRC+ of any MLB third baseman with over 100 plate appearances.
“To watch what he’s doing on the field, to say that I don’t get emotional and choked up about it is a lie,” said Hostetler, now a special assistant to the general manager focused on pro scouting. “It’s happened multiple times. I’ve been at a game where I’ve had our game on the radio and on my phone I’m listening to it, and he hits a home run and I let out a big yell, and a group of scouts are chuckling at me.”
“Sometimes I sit back and I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is really cool.'” Burger said. “I could write a whole book about how cool it is. I think that’s why I feel a little more comfortable because of what I went through and how hard that path was. If I can conquer that, then it makes everything a little easier.”
The grueling physical and mental costs of Burger’s two Achilles tears in 2018 and a 2019 season also mired in heel soreness and tendinitis and moments spent considering retirement were understandably at the forefront. But when Burger returned to action at the alternate site in 2020, a different challenge was laid bare. He was 24 at the time, had missed over two seasons of development time and had not played above Low A. Even vaulting straight to Triple A in 2021 could have seemed ambitious. Over the past two years, Burger’s power was obvious. But it was a question of if he would grow into more than a platoon hitter, and a .224/.271/.392 line against right-handed pitching in the majors last season drove home the concerns.
Burger has drilled 10 home runs in 31 games, his slugging percentage only recently dipped below .700 for the year, and he’s forced his way from the last roster cut in spring training to an everyday player for now. But Burger’s bases-clearing double on Saturday might have been one of the clearest markers of progress. The Royals brought in José Cuas, who is not an elite reliever, but the sort of low-slot right-hander whose horizontally sweeping pitches could expose a righty platoon bat who can only succeed when they have a long look at the ball. Conscious of avoiding a rollover double play, Burger tracked a sweeper at his knees and drilled a line drive to the right-center gap.
“Hitters emerge,” said manager Pedro Grifol. “They’re allowed to get better, right? And that’s what he’s doing. He’s gettingbetter every day. That’s a reason we don’t just show up for the game. That’s the reason we practice. That’s the reason guys get here early, to continue to getbetter and improve. He’s showing that.”
“I bet he doesn’t even believe what’s going on when he has double-digit homers in less than 100 at-bats,” said teammate Andrew Vaughn, who has spent countless hours in the cage with Burger and Gavin Sheets. “To see him make that comeback has been awesome. He’s worked so hard. He does everything you want to see a guy do on a baseball field. He plays hard, he does his work and it’s paying off for him.”
For someone who missed so much time, it’s fitting that Burger has been an early and active adopter of tech aimed at simulating all the reps that he’s missed out on. He was big on WIN Reality virtual reality goggles during the pandemic-induced shutdown, designed to give users extra looks at pitch movement and speed. The iPitch machine training to simulate actual at-bats against opposing pitchers, which has become a standard part of White Sox hitting routines this season under Grifol, was something Burger was already doing both in the minors and during his offseason work. Now, he swears by the habits it has created in his breakout.
“He’s evolving as a player,” said assistant hitting coach Chris Johnson. “He knows his strengths. We call it tunneling, he’s trying to work on his tunneling. Really focusing on one side of the plate or the other, or wherever he’s attacking that certain day. We’ll plug that into the iPitch and he’ll just attack there and work off of that line, in hopes that he takes those pitches, in the hopes that he stays right in that hot zone.”
Burger doesn’t take many walks at this point, and his 29.2 percent strikeout rate is at the upper border of where a hitter can be productive. But under the basic tenet that the goal of any plate approach is to get a good pitch to hit, it’s impossible to drill 17 of 26 hits for extra bases without finding what you want in an at-bat. It just feels like there’s still room for refinement over time when Burger gets through a stretch — albeit a very hot stretch — when he swung at 23 pitches in a row.
“Blew my mind a little bit when I heard that,” said Burger. “It didn’t feel like I swung at too egregious of pitches other than the at-bat yesterday. Seemed all around the zone. It didn’t feel like I swung at 23 but I did.”
Yet again, Burger was once the 11th pick in the draft. The rival scouts who doubted him on draft night, before a conditioning program that saw him shed forty pounds, had doubts about his long-term position and durability, not whether he had the talent to have the top percentile barrel rate seven weeks into the MLB season. And since it’s been three years now of good health, and he clubbed a collection of crucial home runs as a bench bat last June, maybe everyone has gotten used to the idea of a talented hitter who is improving with more opportunity.
But did you see how he’s running these days?
“Oh man, I can’t get into that, I plead the fifth,” joked Vaughn, who has had his teammate rave to him about his 76th-percentile sprint speed. “He goes and shows us that his sprint speed is in the red, or whatever you call it.”
That Burger is playing the game he loves at the highest level again feels like enough of a comeback story for his future book. But the sight of him racing around for three bases on a somewhat standard line drive to the right-center gap last week was enough to make family members, who have been living through this journey for years, stop and have perspective.
!!!! had a front row seat to it all and cannot begin to express how proud I am of him. He deserves all the success and all the praise!!!! https://t.co/vUbP4bGSX3
— Ellie Burger (@burger_ellie) May 18, 2023
“I was watching around these bases and was thinking ‘Man, he didn’t run like that,'” said Hostetler, who recalled scouting Burger as a deceptively quick athlete despite his broad build and choppy stride in college, but not a plus runner. “All the home runs are cool but to think that Jake Burger’s hitting triples in the big leagues, it’s awesome. That just shows how much work he put into the rehab. It’s so cool to see. Modern medicine is an amazing thing (laughs). It’s kinda like the (post) Tommy John guys throwing harder. I guess a couple of Achilles tears and your sprint speed goes up.”
Hostetler is joking about that last part to be clear, but how else does someone process a lumbering slugging prospect whose career almost ended prematurely due to serious leg injuries now having meetings with bench coach Charlie Montoyo about his leads and reads for stealing bases?
“He’s more than capable of stealing 10 bags a year,” Grifol said. “People take that for granted because he is undervalued outside of this clubhouse just because you look at him, he’s a big, strong guy and people don’t think he can run. But he can really run.”
For the new Sox manager who is working with Burger for the first season, that’s just a matter-of-fact assessment of what he has seen of Burger: a reliable power bat who can handle first and third and is faster than he looks. But five years ago, it seemed imprudent to even ask the team for updates about him, as he was mired in endless injury rehab and a correlating mental funk.
Look at him now.
“I think we tend to forget that these kids are human; they’re all human,” said Hostetler. “And they each take their different times and ways to fight through these things.”
(Photo of Jake Burger: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)
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