A little while ago my friend Esteban Rivera over at Pinstripe Alley began a recurring article series titled “At Bat of the Week.” While I may or may not revisit this on a weekly basis, I have to start by thanking him for the idea, and insisting that I give it a shot. We’re working our way up here at South Side Sox in spite of the puny and highly neurotic (come on, you know it’s true) nature of the White Sox fanbase, but who am I to ignore a suggestion from the top baseball site on SB Nation? It is, at the very least, a way to get something fun out of this expletive of a season.
Andrew Vaughn was slated to be the initial subject, but in spite of how incredibly frustrating yesterday’s loss was, Jake Burger’s sixth inning plate appearance against Dean Kremer — his third of the day — stole all of my attention. Burger’s double got a little bit lost in the fray when Austin Hays all but killed the spirit of any Sox comeback on the very next play, but I remain impressed enough with the 2017 first round pick at the plate to write about it here.
Burger might not bring much value on the basepaths or in the field, but it’s becoming increasingly likely — to my eyes, at the very least — that the 26-year-old has a shot to be a legitimately dangerous major league hitter. Similar to how Andrew Vaughn’s breakout this season was predictable in part by the fact that his performance last summer was actually really good for someone who had essentially skipped the minor leagues, it can’t be understated how impressive it is that Burger has managed a 121 OPS+ over his first 213 big league plate appearance despite not playing professional baseball for three seasons and arriving in the majors with fewer than 100 games in the high-minors under his belt.
All that having been said, let’s get to the baseball. We’ll start by working backwards just a little bit. Here’s the double in question, as a primer.
The first thing that makes this notable is that it was the 13th pitch that Burger had seen from Kremer all day. Making quick adjustments and becoming more dangerous with time against a pitcher is a process-based hallmark of a good hitter, and Burger passed that test with flying colors with his third time up against the Baltimore starter. He was 0-for-2 to that point, but Kremer hadn’t exactly dominated. Let’s rewind to Burger’s first time at the plate, which ended with a tapped ground out back to the pitcher.
Kremer’s approach is clear: feed Burger breaking balls outside the zone and hope he chases. Yes, I know it’s a cutter, but just like the Lance Lynn cutter that constantly gives announcers “he only throws fastballs!” fodder, it functions for all intents and purposes as a breaking ball. The line between a cutter and a slider is often blurred, and Alex Chamberlain’s excellent pitch similarity tool, which compares pitches based on velocity, spin, and movement properties, says that 15 of the 20 most similar pitches to Kremer’s cutter are sliders:
Anyhow, focus on the fact that Kremer did nothing but feed Burger cutters during his first at-bat, likely knowing that Burger swings at breaking balls out of the zone an above-average 35% of the time, and he whiffs on a well above-average 80% of those swung-at pitches. Burger whiffed on the first cutter, right down the heart of the plate, and while Kremer threw that last cutter close enough to the zone to allow contact, it sure wasn’t any kind of good contact.
Burger came up hacking his next time up, swinging at both pitches he saw and seemingly determined to not let himself get deep into a count and be forced to deal with any more too-close-to-take cutters. Unfortunately, Kremer chose to break out his changeup, and while it hung right down the middle of the plate, it had the intended effect of making Burger, under the impression he was getting a fastball, swing ahead and under the ball, resulting in a pop-up to shortstop Jorge Mateo.
Let’s take a peep at the first hack he took that at-bat, though.
I can almost hear Hawk Harrelson wailing “JUST missed it” after either of those pitches. The results weren’t there — that hanging cutter was just a little too high for Burger to get to it in time — but he clearly knew what he was looking for in general. Those are good and healthy cuts, to put it one way. And so the table is set for Burger’s third time up, leading off the sixth inning against a tiring Kremer.
The former 14th round pick started by once again offering a pitch that Burger had yet to see that day: a 0-0 curveball that hung about as badly as you can hang a curve. Unfortunately, Burger couldn’t do anything with it, swinging hard over the top and grounding it foul down the third-base line.
That’s the beauty of a 0-0 curveball: Hitters are much more inclined to take the first pitch of an at-bat than just about any other, and if they haven’t seen a curveball all day, timing can often be a challenge. Having gotten him 0-1, Kremer turns back to the cutter, executing a nearly perfect sweeper on the outside corner to draw a swing-and-miss.
Sticking with the theme of the night, Kremer throws another cutter, this time not so well-executed. Having buried Burger in an 0-2 hole, he could afford to put one in a far-off spot where the hitter can do nothing but whiff. Burger, however, saw it as a ball the entire way. If you go back to the chart of their first inning face-off, it’s the third time Kremer has thrown a non-competitive cutter that Burger — whose slightly below-average plate discipline isn’t necessarily bad for someone with roughly 100 games between the Missouri Valley Conference and the American League — didn’t have a hard time laying off. There’s a reason for that, which we’ll get to in a moment.
On 1-2, Kremer is still all-in on the cutter, throwing it again to another great spot just outside, almost identical to the two-strike pitch that induced a 1-3 ground out in the first inning. Although Burger puts more or less the same swing on it that he did both that time and on the swinging strike incurred moments prior, his timing improved just enough to get a slight piece of the ball, not at all unlike the first inning.
Despite his whiff rate, Burger’s apparent ability to adjust pitch-to-pitch is promising. His strikeouts and proclivity to swing-and-miss are both worse than league average, but there’s little reason to believe they can’t improve. Again as with Vaughn last year, almost entirely skipping the minor leagues is context that can’t be ignored. At any rate, Burger already has shown the ability to have perfectly manageable (if still subpar) strikeout rates for at least a couple weeks at a time in his brief big league stint.
If Burger can put up a sub-15% strikeout rate for 50 trips to the plate at a time, there’s at least some reason to believe he can be average-ish for longer periods of time with added experience. Anyhow, with Burger once again staring down a 1-2 count, Kremer tries to beat him with high heat, but fatigue has begun to set in, and he “overthrows” the fastball for another pitch that Burger was able to take all the way.
The count is slowly moving in Burger’s favor, and Kremer wants to go back to his money pitch, shaking off the fastball in favor of another cutter. Before we show the hit (spoiler), take a look at where catcher Adley Rutschman sets up.
We’ve seen the pitch that he and Kremer wanted. It’s not necessarily the easiest pitch in the world to execute, however. As good as the three cutters that Burger offered at were, there were also the three that were easy takes. The reason those misfired pitches become easy takes is because if you’re going to miss your spot with Burger at the plate, you don’t want to risk missing your spot in the zone. He almost always whiffs when it’s out of the strike zone, but he’s also shown a remarkable early ability to hit breaking balls in the zone, with a .400 wOBA and .333 batting average backed up by a .406 and .311 expected wOBA and batting average, respectively.
Burger’s a big boy with a big swing, and at least through 60 games, he’ll make a pitcher pay if they let a breaking ball catch too much plate.
Kremer’s final cutter of the night to Burger caught too much plate.
All in all, Burger didn’t swing at bad pitches, he made adjustments to put up a good fight against tough pitches and showed a flexible swing, and he didn’t let the pitcher get away with multiple mistakes without being punished. 1-for-3 against Kremer might not seem terribly noteworthy, but there’s a lot to like across those 14 pitches.
Burger is sure to evolve as a hitter over time, and this at-bat highlights a few of the traits that, if improved upon, could turn him into a hitter that improbably justifies his draft position. Unsurprisingly, Burger routinely does serious damage when he makes contact in the zone — his exit velocities are elite, and none of his eight home runs have been slower than 106 mph — and there’s a clear avenue to being a well-above average hitter if he can consistently showcase those traits and push his strikeout-to-walk rate in the right direction. Given the state of the White Sox lineup and injury report, there’s no doubt he’ll get the opportunity to try.