Name: Greg Burke
DOB: April 10, 1986
Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2006, Burke had a pair of unremarkable seasons in the Padres system. He filled a role as a long man in relief and spot starter but didn’t have a true plus pitch.
His ability to throw strikes and get ground balls was his best assets but the odds were being stacked against him.
Entering 2008, Burke was 12-10 with a 4.43 ERA between Low-A Fort Wayne and High-A Lake Elsinore. The opposition managed more hits than innings pitched but a low walk total gave his defense a chance to make plays.
Still, the stuff wasn’t great. During the offseason, Burke worked hard at changing his body. He added significant muscle to his frame and saw his fastball velocity rise from the mid to upper-80s into the low-90s – consistently. His pitches also had tighter spin and become crisper with its downward action.
“He’s more durable,” San Antonio pitching coach Steve Webber began citing the difference between the Burke of ’07 and ‘08. “He was stronger. His velocity was up. You know, he was just a lot sharper. The slider was sharp and his fastball had more life.”
He went on to have a dominant season in Double-A. Burke went 2-7 with 23 saves and a 2.24 ERA across 59 games and 84.1 innings. He held the opposition to a .238 average, walked just 17 and struck out 92.
Stingy with runners in scoring position, Burke yielded just nine hits in 63 at-bats. He also allowed just 12 extra base hits all season – only one coming with runners in scoring position.
“A lot of things just came together for him,” Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said. “We signed him out of a tryout camp, and he was always kind of in-between with his breaking stuff. He started in Fort Wayne and just ran out of gas last year in Lake Elsinore where he was kind of a long man. That is what got him over the winter to make a real commitment to physical conditioning, he came back 15 pounds stronger and added two to three MPH to his fastball.”
His 5.41 Strikeout-to-walk ratio was tops in the circuit among pitchers with 80 innings or more and his 9.82 strikeouts per nine innings were second most in the Texas League.
Burke’s 2.77 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was second in the league and his left on-base percentage of 81 percent was the top mark.
The New Jersey native went to the Arizona Fall League after the season and had a successful run. He didn’t allow an earned run over his first nine appearances and posted a 2.51 ERA overall.
While his first save wasn’t registered until May 24, the right-hander still managed to earn 23 in 26 chances for San Antonio.
He had one terrible month – posting an 8.71 ERA in July when he surrendered 10 of the 21 earned runs he allowed all season. In his four other months of work, his highest ERA was 2.20. He had a string of 20 straight scoreless innings during the month of May and earned 10 saves in June.
Burke has always been known to have a good moving fastball that stayed low in the zone. Added velocity, however, became the difference and made the rest of his pitches even better. He tosses consistently at 90-92 mph with tailing action that produces ground balls.
“Towards the end of the year, he started throwing his fastball more than he threw his slider,” former San Antonio manager Bill Masse said. “Probably the last month of the season, he started gaining arm strength as the year went on. This kid was throwing between 91 and 94 mph in his last appearances of the year. Probably his last five or six starts, he was throwing this.”
One of his best attributes is getting that first-pitch strike. He is efficient with his pitches and doesn’t waste early in the count. Because of his ability to spot the pitch on the corners, hitters rarely get good wood on the ball and often let the pitchers’ pitch slide by without a swing.
More than ever, Burke relied on what he termed his slider this season. It has cutting action and can be a mix between a cut-fastball and a slider because of its spin. His ability to subtract velocity from the pitch while still keeping a tight spin turned out to be a swing-and-miss pitch for him.
Late bite on the slider produced a lot of strikeouts to right-handed hitters who thought they had a beat on the ball only to swing over top.
“His slider is almost like a cutter; I wouldn’t even think of it as a slider, it was more like a cut fastball,” Masse explained. “It had a little bit of a down movement in it, so everyone kind of labeled it like a slider. He had a lot of cut action. He threw it very hard. He almost threw it almost like a cutter.”
Burke’s two-pitch repertoire and ability to throw strikes with something other than his fastball has made him tough to hit, especially for right-handers. Left-handed hitters, however, got a much better beat on his pitches – hitting him at a .314 clip. That will have to be cleaned up before he can take the next step.
Burke is a painfully slow worker on the mound – so much so that it can be a detriment to his fielders. He has taken as much as 30 seconds between pitches and has been timed consistently at 27 seconds – a long time for a fielder to wait for a pitch.
“For Greg Burke to pitch in the big leagues – he’s got to come up with a – he does have a split-finger for left-handers – when he struggled, he struggled against the left-handers because he didn’t have an out pitch for them,” Masse said. “That slider wasn’t like a true downer slider; it was almost like a cut fastball. It was in between a cut fastball that was going 90 degrees and a slider that kind of has a little bit of late bite. It was somewhere in between there. For a left-hander, that’s not enough depth sometimes to get them out. So, he struggled a little bit.
“He’s got good potential. I like him. He comes at you. He’s not afraid to throw strikes. I was impressed with the way he threw it all year. He’s got good size too.”
Conclusion: Burke had a banner season in Double-A. The lack of a third pitch to battle left-handed hitters is a concern. With his motion, lefties get a good read on the ball and something moving away from them would benefit him greatly.
As with any prospect, Burke must prove this was not a fluke season. His strike-throwing mentality and makeup allow him to excel as a closer, but the advancements he made last offseason must be duplicated again – especially with tough Triple-A looming.
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