Brock Burke is on a roll. The 20-year-old southpaw has made nine starts for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, and he hasn’t allowed more than one earned run in any of them. His record is an unblemished 5-0, and his ERA is a sparkling 1.23. He’s been one of the most-dominant under-the-radar pitchers in the minors. Of the 52 A-ball pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched this season, his ERA ranks third.
Burke’s fast start for Tampa Bay’s Low-A affiliate has been partially fueled by Driveline Baseball.
“I came down early and did a weighted-ball camp,” explained Burke, whom the Rays took in the third round of the 2014 draft out of a Denver-area high school. “It was mostly a Driveline program. Our pitching coordinator, Dewey Robinson, invited a bunch of us — it was voluntary — and it was definitely beneficial. It got me in better body shape, which has helped my accuracy and my velo.”
Midwest League hitters have seen firm fastballs from the lefty, but it’s not as though he suddenly morphed into a flamethrower. What’s changed is that his velocity is no longer temperamental.
“I haven’t really had a velo jump,” explained Burke. “Last year, after they fixed my mechanics, I could bump 95. This year I’m more consistently 90-92, and bumping 95 more often, instead of being all over the place. Before, I’d be down to 87-90 at times. Now I’m more consistent with ranges, and my velo isn’t dropping at the end of games.”
His weight has been going up. The 6-foot-4 Evergreen, Colo., native “was something like 165 pounds” when he signed his first professional contract, and now he’s a sturdy 205.
Pumping iron is one thing, and pumping high fastballs is another. Despite having the strength to overpower batters when the need arises, Burke isn’t a big believer in working upstairs.
“Some of the guys on our team — those Driveline guys, the high spin rate guys — work up in the zone,” said Burke. “It’s not really in my repertoire to stay up there. I mostly try to stay down in the zone and get ground balls, although that hasn’t happened nearly as much this year.”
Burke throws both a four-seamer and a two-seamer, and as he pointed out, he’s been endangering fewer worms than usual. His ground-ball rate, which was over 50% each of the past two seasons, currently stands at 34.3%. It’s not by design, but thanks to a solid strikeout rate (24.1%) and an ability to keep fly balls in the yard (he’s yet to allow a home run this season, and has now only allowed five in his first 35 professional starts) it hasn’t been a problem.
The fast-rising Rays prospect isn’t sure why he hasn’t been inducing as many grass-skimmers. But he does know how he wants to attack hitters.
“The last few years I’ve had a really good ground-ball rate, so it’s kind of weird that I haven’t been getting them,” said Burke, who augments his fastball combo with a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup. “Normally, I try to throw a lot of fastballs inside to righties. A big goal this year is to be better against righties, with both my fastball and my change — hard in, soft away. If I can move the ball around, and keep it down, I should be able to get a lot of outs, whether they’re on the ground or not.”
Burke has a general awareness of who’s standing in the batter’s box, but it doesn’t go much beyond that. While he “takes notes on some of the better hitters,” he primarily focuses on pitching his own game. Burke told me that he’s yet to look at the lineup card before taking the mound.
The way he sees it, not trying to outsmart hitters is a good way to avoid outsmarting himself.
“You don’t want to overthink things,” said Burke. “Some of the power hitters in this league, I’ve noticed, will be like, ‘They’re going to throw me first-pitch off-speed, because I’m a power hitter,’ so they sit first-pitch off-speed, and they smoke it. I’ve seen that happen plenty of times. If I just stick to what I do — maybe I’m going fastball in with that first pitch — I’m going to be better off.”
Two months into what is looming as a breakout season, Burke has seen very few of his pitches get smoked. Thanks in part to a weighted-ball program, he’s one of the hottest pitchers in the minors.
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.