It was early in 2018 Spring Training, and everything seemed right in the world for White Sox infield prospect Jake Burger.
After inking his contract as the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft, he had secured his financial future with a healthy, $3.7 million signing bonus. The scouting reports from his minor league debut suggested the slugger came as advertised, a right-handed masher possessing plus power and excellent bat-to-ball skills. In his 47-game coming-out party with the Kannapolis Intimidators, Burger notched two five-hit efforts, including hitting for the cycle in a late August tilt against Greensboro.
After closing the book on his draft campaign, Burger wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels. He spent the winter in Arizona shedding weight and conditioning himself to prepare for the rigors of his first full minor league season.
Unfortunately, after arriving at Spring Training in excellent physical condition and getting off to an excellent start, fate would rear its ugly head. A routine February ground ball, and Burger’s subsequent sprint for first base, would send the top prospect down a long, dark path of trial and tribulation. Hustling in vain while trying to leg out an infield single, Burger felt his left Achilles tendon pop, causing him to crumble to the ground writhing in pain.
After undergoing surgery to repair his injured wheel that March, he seemed to be well on the road to recovery until it happened. AGAIN. While walking at his home, Burger’s recently-repaired tendon ruptured.
It was now May 2018, and the third basemen went under the knife for the second time in less than four months. Burger’s recovery timetable was re-set at 12 months, while both he and the White Sox were optimistically contemplating his return to baseball midway through the 2019 season. However, another setback loomed, as Burger dealt with a very uncomfortable stress reaction while his body slowly acclimated to the new tendon.
After missing a second full season of development, Burger admitted to feeling some uncertainty about his baseball future as he shared with South Side Sox, “I had doubts and thought about quitting, I would think, ‘Why am I still doing this? Why am I rehabbing every day?’ It was hard to take it day-by-day when I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I told my parents, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
He credits a network of supportive friends and family for helping motivate him through those challenging times, and said that his parents offered their reassurance, telling him to “stay in the fight and things will work out.”
The normally-affable Burger even took a self-imposed leave of absence from social media as part of a mental reset. Predictably, for those familiar with the everyday rancor of White Sox Twitter, a loud minority were relentlessly dogging the first-rounder and labeling him a bust during his darkest days.
Admirably, when the 24-year-old reflects he does so without any animosity toward his detractors and shares, “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. I think at times my mother was more upset than anybody. I would say 95% of the correspondence and comments were supportive and 5% was negative. I try to stay lighthearted, and want people to see my presence on social media as a reflection of my personality. Some people are just naturally negative, but they are entitled to their opinions, too.”
As Spring Training 2020 approached, Burger experienced a breakdown of sorts, but not necessarily a detrimental one. It was more of a personal catharsis, as he began the process of exercising the mental demons that had plagued him since his initial injury.
On St. Patrick’s Day, he shared a message of inspiration on his Twitter feed.
Sox Nation, Family and Friends: pic.twitter.com/pyQe6gnOUg— Jake Burger (@Burgatron13) March 18, 2020
Now, after a two-year journey to hell and back, the table was set for Burger’s triumphant return to the diamond — and just like that, the Covid-19 virus ominously threatened to take a third consecutive season away from the prospect’s development.
Rather than dwelling on the potential of further lost time, Burger turned the proverbial lemons into lemonade and focused on his wellness and injury rehabilitation. He started playing tennis with his mother, Shannon, who was once an accomplished collegiate player at the University of Evansville. He suggested that Covid caused him to take a unique approach to his training and stated, “When the gyms shut down, I had to get creative. I played tennis in the morning, swam laps in the afternoon, and would walk or ride a bike in the evening.”
This “body by Jake” approach has helped Burger display a transformation in his physique, as he’s shed 30 pounds since February and currently wears an athletic 220 pounds on his 6´2´´ frame.
Recently asked to grade himself on a 100-point scale, he said, “100%, I feel faster than ever, the best physical shape I’ve ever been in. Both mentally and physically, I checked a lot of boxes for myself — and hopefully for the White Sox, as well.”
As the pandemic delayed the baseball season, Burger said that his daily tennis matches with his mother and sister helped pave the way for a smooth transition from rehab back to the diamond. At first, he was playing 30 minutes, until he felt like his body couldn’t handle any more. As he gradually increased his court time to an hour, then an hour-and-a-half, Burger found himself “playing to play the game.” No longer worried about the stress on his Achilles, he became focused on trying to score points and win sets. Burger found that moving laterally and stopping quickly on the hard court was much tougher on his body than playing on a grass field, so when he resumed baseball activity, “the fear wasn’t really there any more.”
Due to the abnormality of the Covid season, Burger’s first live game action came in July, when he suited up in 12 games for the Normal Cornbelters in the CarShield Collegiate League. After his 29-month absence from the game, the CarShield League wasn’t about statistics for Burger, but rather a very important hurdle for him to navigate in his personal journey, a testament to his perseverance in overcoming adversity.
Upon the completion of his injury-free trial in the CarShield League, Burger reached out to the White Sox director of player development Chris Getz, who charted the course for his return to professional baseball. His first assignment was to the 60-man roster at the White Sox remote training site in Schaumburg.
“It was awesome,” Burger says of his time at Boomers Stadium. “Every single guy at the plate or on the mound was there for a reason. It was elite-level talent, MLB-ready talent, and we got to pick each other’s brains and learn from each other. I got a lot of at-bats against the same guys, and we got to really dive deep into our approaches and talk through the hitter’s and pitcher’s mindsets.”
When it came to knocking off the rust, Burger indicated that it took some adjustment while getting used to facing premium velocity at the dish again.
“It was hard to get comfortable in the box from the start,” he says. “If you don’t see 98 mph arms for two years, your timing is going to be off for a bit.”
For prospect hounds starved for box scores and statistics, the news from Schaumburg was somewhat sparse, but Burger’s return to competition earned rave reviews from his teammates. Andrew Vaughn, a similarly-pedigreed hitter and fellow first round choice shared, “Man, it was pretty special seeing a guy who had been out of the game for some time come back and do what he did. His passion for the game really shows every day.” Meanwhile, Burger’s close friend and confidant Tyler Johnson also offered praise: “Jake should be proud of what he’s done and how far he has come, and that’s scary because I firmly believe the best of his baseball career has yet to be played.”
Suddenly, Burger’s reboot — seemingly moving at a glacial pace for more than two years — had kicked into warp speed, as he found himself getting additional reps with several of the younger prospects at the White Sox fall instructional league. Once again, the reviews were stellar, with Bryce Bush suggesting that Burger “went crazy” on both sides of the ball. While another teammate offered, “He (Burger) was the best player on the field, and it wasn’t even close.”
As a result of all the hard work, Burger was notified on November 20 that he had been assigned to the White Sox 40-man roster — another box checked, another dream realized. But there is still plenty of work to be done. Burger has learned that the game of baseball can be a fickle suitor to even its most talented players. Currently, all is once again well in Jake Burger’s world; after a complete physical and mental makeover and with the building blocks for future success firmly in place, he has regained his zeal for the game.
Also a lil update on the swing.... pic.twitter.com/EYBmG70Jxg— Jake Burger (@Burgatron13) November 19, 2020
Burger also feels that he gained additional perspective, wisdom and humility from the adversity: “At times, I felt hopeless and worthless, and it was a humbling experience. [But now I know] on the field, stay on an even keel whether you hit a grand slam or strike out with the bases loaded. It’s baseball; it’s a hard sport, you have to roll with the punches. If you put in the work and the preparation, the results should take care of themselves.”
White Sox Nation should be very excited about a re-energized Jake Burger and look forward to the star prospect regaining his luster as he sets his course toward Guaranteed Rate Field.
Godspeed Jake Burger, we are all rooting for you.