Can Jake Burger Save the White Sox?

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday night, Phillies left-hander Bailey Falter caught a little too much of the plate with a fastball and, well, kaboom!

What an absolute rocket. With a 118.2 mph exit velocity, Jake Burger’s three-run dinger was the second-hardest hit ball of the season so far. Harder than anything that’s come off the bat of Aaron Judge or Yordan Alvarez in 2023. Hard enough that this ball went 417 feet with just a 21 degree launch angle. That’s not the launch angle of your standard-issue ballistic arc moon shot. Anyone who watched La Fleche Wallonne on Wednesday can tell you it’s possible to ride a bicycle up a 21-degree incline.

But that’s just the kind of week Burger’s been having. Since being recalled to the majors on April 6, Burger has eight hits. Seven of them have gone for extra bases, and five of those have been home runs. Of those five home runs, four have come in the past six days. Back in the day, the only way to display that much power in Chicago was to tilt a presidential election for John F. Kennedy.

It was not always ordained to be so. With a couple weeks to go in spring training, I asked Burger what he thought of his prospects for making the Opening Day roster. He came into camp facing entrenched starters at basically every position he’s capable of playing; if he was competing for anything, it was a spot on the bench. But with Luis Robert Jr., Eloy Jiménez, and Yoán Moncada at the WBC, he got all the playing time he could ask for in camp.

“I’ve been in basically every game,” he said. “I’m fortunate to be in that position and to be able to compete for a job. Take it day by day and just be myself. The rest will take care of itself.”

It’s the kind of answer that would make Crash Davis stand up and applaud, but Burger gave it with conspicuous confidence for someone whose major league career has been anything but a sure thing.

In 2017, Burger was the no. 11 overall pick out of Missouri State, where he played with future big leaguers Matt Hall and Dylan Coleman, fellow first-round pick Jon Harris, and a pitcher named Trey Turner. (Not to be confused with Phillies shortstop Trea Turner, former Virginia Tech wide receiver Tré Turner, or five-time Pro Bowl offensive guard Trai Turner.) Burger was one of the best mid-major hitters in the country over three years in Springfield, boasting back-to-back seasons of hitting at least .300/.400/.600 with at least 20 home runs as a sophomore and junior. He figured to rise through the minors quickly.

But four days into Cactus League play in his second pro season, Burger tore his Achilles tendon. Ten weeks later he tore it again. He missed all of 2019 with a heel injury, then all of 2020 due to the pandemic canceling minor league play. Concerns about Burger’s long-term suitability for third base were not alleviated when his ankles and feet betrayed him, and few young hitters can survive going three seasons without playing a competitive game.

In the meantime, the White Sox were stocking up on competitors for playing time. Moncada moved from second base to third base in 2019. Jiménez and Robert established themselves as big league regulars in the outfield, and Chicago spent top 10 picks on Andrew Vaughn and Zack Collins, a college catcher who profiled as a future first baseman or DH. When Burger did finally make it to the majors, he got hurt again, this time breaking his wrist in July.

Burger missed out on the Opening Day roster, but he didn’t have to wait long in the minors. Within a week, Jiménez tweaked a hamstring and went on the IL, and when he was ready to return, Moncada went on the IL himself with a back injury. Now, Burger is not only on the roster, he’s Chicago’s starting third baseman.

But even after the opportunity to play opened up, Burger wasn’t going to make much headway striking out 30% of the time. He was good at the plate when healthy — a 113 wRC+ in 183 PA last season — but not enough to force a more established player out of the lineup.

“Cutting down the strikeouts and working on bat-to-ball skills was a big factor in this offseason,” he said. “If I can consistently make contact, the ball is going to jump.”

In addition to making some mechanical changes, Burger also tried to refine his pitch selection. He said he wanted to lay off low pitches — even strikes — that he was more likely to ground out than hit hard in the air. Burger can hit the ball hard, as his home run off Falter would indicate, but it’s easiest for him when the pitch is either at belt-level or up in the zone and away. Pitches low in the zone have traditionally caused him problems:

Despite this, last season he swung at about two-thirds of pitches in the lowest third of the strike zone. That low-middle sector, with a 71% swing rate, netted Burger a contact rate of 79% but a slugging percentage of just .222 on the balls he did manage to put in play. He said his goal this past offseason was to work on “creating a floor in the strike zone.”

So how did he do that? Cool gadgets.

“I use WIN virtual reality, which is pretty cool,” he said. That system involves a bat sensor and a VR headset, which allows him to simulate at-bats off any pitcher in baseball. “Also, my training facility in Nashville has been huge, using an iPitch machine, and you can put in any pitch in the major leagues.”

It’s not the real thing, but it’s close enough for someone who’s finally catching up after three seasons on the shelf. It’s a small sample, but through Wednesday’s games, it appears that Burger’s time on the holodeck has paid off:

If this is a genuine reinvention for Burger and not just small sample noise, it comes at an interesting time. It’s been more than half a decade since the White Sox blew up the talented and cost-controlled core of Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and José Quintana. And after back-to-back playoff appearances in 2020 and 2021 generated a grand total of zero advancements to the second round, the Sox look like they’re going backward.

Until now, it looked like Burger was just one in a line of homegrown players who failed to live up to (admittedly astronomical) expectations. And he might still be that. We’ll see. But that core is now in what should be its prime — including Burger, who turned 27 two weeks ago — and there are still open questions about Vaughn’s power and Jiménez’s ability to stay on the field, among other shortcomings across the roster. Soon, it might be time to tear it all down again, whether Burger keeps homering four times a week or not.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

Sox are beyond saving. The good news is that the same people who led the team here will surely get the rebuild right.