A Conversation With Cleveland Pitching Prospect Tanner Burns

Cleveland develops pitchers as well as any team in baseball, and that’s good news for Tanner Burns. The second of the club’s two first round picks last summer, Burns has an Auburn University pedigree and a high ceiling. He also has some question marks, as evidenced by Eric Longenhagen — who acknowledged that he’s “a little lighter on Burns than the industry consensus” — having ranked the 22-year-old right-hander conservatively at No. 20 on the team’s 2021 Top Prospects list. Baseball America is somewhat more bullish on Burns, slotting him at No. 15 on their own list.

The Decatur, Alabama native has pitched solidly in his first two appearances of the season. In a pair of starts for the High-A Lake County Captains, Burns has allowed four hits and two runs, with one walk and 13 strikeouts, his fastball sitting 94-95 and topping out at 96. He discussed his approach to pitching, and the influences of Tim Hudson and Casey Mize, following his initial outing.


David Laurila: Let’s start with an icebreaker I’ve used several times in the past: Do you consider pitching to be more of an art, or more of a science?

Tanner Burns: “I feel it’s more of an art. I try to keep it plain and simple, like straight vanilla. With my release points, I think ‘off my right ear’ to go inside on a righty, ‘off my nose’ for down the middle,’ and ‘off my left ear’ for away to a righty.’ So I kind of take it as an art, delivering my pitches, letting it come off my hand.”

Laurila: I assume you appreciate the science part of it?

Burns: “I do. We have all this information. After a start, I’ll have 10 pages of paper, with my spin rate and all that stuff. The way things are [trending], if you come back to me in two years, I’ll probably say science.”

Laurila: Did you have much of that at Auburn?

Burns: “We did, but I just kind of pitched to my strengths. That’s what I do. At the same time, I’m not going to be hard-headed and be like, ‘They can’t hit this.’ I do like to know what they don’t like. But at the end of the day I have to pitch to my strengths. That’s what’s gotten me to where I am right now.”

Laurila: What are your strengths?

Burns: “My fastball command, and confidence in what I’m throwing. Those are the main things. I’ve learned that my fastball is good when it’s up, and it’s also good when it’s down-and-away. I guess that’s my strength. And then my breaking ball… I gotta call it a ‘slutter.’ It’s a slider when it’s down and a cutter when it’s up.”

Laurila: “Is your fastball a two-seam or a four-seam?

Burns: “It’s a four-seam. They call it a rise ball. In my last outing, my [spin rate] was up to like 2,500 [rpm].”

Laurila: When did you discover that it’s effective when you elevate?

Burns: “I kind of figured out that my fastball is deadly in my sophomore year of college. It was like, ‘Man, I’m throwing at the top of the zone and hitters are swinging at it.’ I was like, ‘Wow.’ I’d always heard that if you see a hitter swing at something high, just keep climbing the ladder. But my fastball plays to where I can throw it down the middle. It looks like it rises at the end. My strikeouts started jumping when I learned that, when I kind of figured out my arsenal.”

Laurila: [Lake County broadcaster] Andrew Luftglass told me that you have a good 12-6 curveball.

Burns: “I started developing that my junior year. My freshman and sophomore years, I had a slurve; sometimes it would be a 12-6, and sometimes it would be a slider. I knew that I needed to have two separate pitches to get to the next level, so I added a 12-6 curveball to my arsenal. I’m happy with how that pitch has developed. And then there’s this thing I’m calling a slutter. I kind of did that over the offseason. Me and Joel Mangrum, one of our pitcher coordinators, talked about it. I told him it’s a cutter when it’s up, and a slider when it’s down. It’s anywhere from 89 to 91 mph.”

Laurila: Changing direction, Cleveland has a great reputation when it comes to developing pitchers. Did you know that before the team drafted you?

Burns: “I didn’t know that. But two days after I got drafted, Tim Hudson — he was my pitching coach at Auburn — was like, ‘Man, you know what’s so cool? You just went into one of the best farm systems for pitching development.’ I said, ‘Are you serious?’ He said, ‘Yeah, do your research.’

“Man, it’s crazy what they’re doing here. I mean, I had my share in instructs, and then in the pitching camp we had in December, in Arizona. Then spring training. Just how much they care about the pitchers, how much they want us to know about the data, the people they’ve hired who know so much about pitching… I mean, I’m really in a good spot. I went from Auburn, where I was around one the best pitching coaches in college baseball, to an organization that really cares about pitching. I’ve been blessed to be around great pitching minds.”

Laurila: Did you have a pretty good idea that Cleveland would take you?

Burns: “I had no idea. The draft is so weird. I’ll have someone telling me, ‘The draft is so cool.’ I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, it’s cool, but I’m glad I’ll never have to go through an MLB draft again.’ It was terrible, with all the stress. But then, when you hear your name called… it’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”

Laurila: What was it like working with Tim Hudson?

Burns: “I was actually an Alabama fan growing up, and the reason I went to Auburn was [head coach] Butch Thompson — his pitching mind and his resume of putting guys in the big leagues. I wanted to be a big-leaguer, so I went to Auburn. I also had Steve Smith, another great pitching mind. He’s the head coach at Tennessee Tech now. I had Blake Beck, who followed Coach Smith [to Tennessee Tech]. And then I had Tim Hudson, who did it at the highest level for 17 years, plus Casey Mize [as a teammate]. I’ve been really fortunate to have guys like that in my life.”

Laurila: What influence did Mize did have?

Burns: “My freshman year, he kind of took me under his wing. He was a junior and had all the world to be a hot shot, but he wasn’t that at all. He was a very good teammate and a very good friend. He always cared about me — he cared about the whole pitching staff — and always wanted me to get the best out of my ability. He kind of taught me how to go about my business each day, to find a routine.”

Laurila: Any good Casey Mize stories you can share?

Burns: “The funniest story I’ve got on Casey is that it was his first start, and he was pumping 95-97. Then, the last three pitches were 90-91. I was like, ‘Dang, his arm is hurting.’ I asked him, ‘Is your arm OK?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, those were splitters.’ I mean, I knew he had a splitter, but I had no idea it was that hard. I was like, ‘Well, good luck to them tonight.”

Laurila: One day you could pitching for Cleveland against the Mize and the Tigers. What would that be like?

Burns: “Man, that would be awesome. Hopefully I’d pitch well.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Left of Centerfield
2 years ago

Great interview David! Hopefully Burns and Logan Allen move quickly because Cleveland definitely needs some help at the back end of the rotation.