When the Twins signed 30-year-old right-hander Jared Burton to a minor league contract this winter, it was little more than a blip on the offseason radar. He managed to rack up 1.3 WAR in 161 relief innings for a Reds from 2007-2009 after being taken from the Athletics in the Rule 5 Draft, but hyperthyroidism and shoulder surgery limited him to just eight big league innings in 2010 and 2011. Relievers get hurt and drop off the baseball radar, it’s what they do.
Burton appears to have avoided that fate, at least for the time being. He had a strong Spring Training and made Minnesota’s bullpen with an assist to Scott Baker’s elbow injury. Through five innings across six appearances, he’s struck out six batters and walked zero. He did surrender two solo homers in his first game, so it’s going to take some time for him to work off that 5.40 ERA and 6.32 FIP. Burton has allowed just one baserunner (a single) since that first game.
During his most recent appearance against the Yankees on Wednesday night, he struck out Nick Swisher with the tying runs on base to end the seventh inning. Here’s the pitch he used to set up the strikeout…
That 2-1 pitch came in at 85 mph and moved just about six inches horizontally according to PitchFX. Burton threw it again in a 2-2 count three pitches later for the strikeout, though that one finished in the dirt. The pitch is so good, it even has its own name…
Jared Burton, who was terrific tonight, throws a changeup with splitter movement. “So we just call it a splangeup.” #Twins
— John Shipley (@shipleykid) April 19, 2012
Splitter-changeup hybrids aren’t exactly new, but they aren’t all that common either. Eric Gagne most famously used one during his heyday, when he racked up 10.9 WAR in 247 relief innings from 2002-2004. Burton has always used what PitchFX called a changeup, though during his three injury free seasons he’s used it approximately 16% of the time and got a whiff on 32% of all swings. This season he’s up to 26% and 50%, respectively. Small sample size warnings obviously apply, though we’re not trying to predict the future here. We’re just enjoying a beautiful pitch.
Changeups and splitters are usually born out of necessity, meaning a pitcher doesn’t start throwing them until the game tells them they need it. Trevor Hoffman’s story is very well-known; he was a hard-thrower but lost some velocity when he hurt his shoulder early in his career, so he had to focus on the changeup and it eventually developed into one of the best pitches in baseball history. James Shields has a similar story. Burton has used the changeup for years, but the baseball romantic in me wants to be believe that he developed this new and devastating splangeup while coming back from his shoulder problem and will use it to carve out a productive career. That might not happen, but at the very least I’m sure Nick Swisher will be looking for that splange every time he steps in against Burton from here on out.