Auburn RHP heads to Atlanta with Hudson's endorsement

Burkhalter, drafted at No. 76, developed cutter while working with Braves Hall of Famer

July 19th, 2022

ATLANTA -- If the Braves weren’t completely sure about whether they should draft Blake Burkhalter, they were likely sold once president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos talked to Tim Hudson recently.

“I told him [Burkhalter] was the best thing in the world of baseball, because I believe he really is,” Hudson said. “I think he is really good. I think he’s going to be a big leaguer. Everyone seemed to have him projected to go later than the Braves took him.”

Looking at the players the Braves took in the 2022 MLB Draft, which concluded Tuesday, Burkhalter is the most likely to reach the Majors first. The 6-foot, 204-pound right-handed pitcher was taken with the 76th overall pick, which Atlanta received as compensation for Freddie Freeman leaving via free agency.

Burkhalter made Auburn’s team as a walk-on before the shortened 2020 season, then made significant strides as Hudson continued to serve as his alma mater’s pitching coach the past two seasons. Burkhalter notched 16 saves while helping the Tigers reach the College World Series in June.

“I think what makes him great is he’s had to work for what he has gotten,” Hudson said. “Nothing was ever handed to him. Because of that, he’s not going to be satisfied before he’s up there and has a long career.”

Quite honestly, somebody could have delivered a similar compliment after the A’s took Hudson in the sixth round of the 1997 MLB Draft. Long before totaling 222 wins and being elected into the Braves Hall of Fame, Hudson was an undersized player who had to go to a junior college (Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Phenix City, Ala.) to gain Auburn’s attention.

Burkhalter also exceeded expectations at Auburn, and like Hudson, he now has a chance to play for the team he loved throughout his childhood in Dothan, Ala. He had his freshman season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, and then he produced a high walk rate as he finally truly got his feet wet in 2021. But Burkhalter proved to be one of college baseball’s top relievers once he returned this year and began confidently throwing a cutter that Hudson helped him develop.

“His career is taking off,” Braves vice president of scouting Dana Brown said. “I think we’re catching him on the climb, which we’re excited about.”

While Atlanta plans to use Burkhalter as a starter to begin his Minor League career, he will likely end up as a reliever by the time he reaches the Majors. In fact, Hudson believes that with a 98 mph fastball, a sharp cutter and an effective changeup, the young hurler could immediately become an effective Major League reliever.

“I think he could pitch in the big leagues right now, just because of the command with those three pitches,” Hudson said.

When Burkhalter posted a 1.71 ERA, recorded 30 strikeouts and issued 16 walks over 21 innings in 2021, he often tried to be too precise in the strike zone. Hudson saw the potential and knew greater success would come once the reliever became more confident in the fact that his cutter didn’t have to show significant movement.

“When young pitchers throw an offspeed pitch, and they don’t see it do anything, they think it’s a bad pitch,” Hudson said. “They want to look at Rapsodo and see the horizontal and vertical break. It wasn’t a ton, but I knew it tunneled just like his fastball and spun just like his fastball. But he didn’t have confidence to throw it in a game until he went to [Maryland] to play last summer.”

Burkhalter registered 30 strikeouts, issued four walks and allowed only seven hits over 16 innings in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League last summer. He returned to Auburn with that cutter and became a reliable closer. He posted a 3.69 ERA, recorded 71 strikeouts and issued seven walks over 46 1/3 innings this year.

“He got hit hard against Ole Miss during the first SEC weekend, and then had one or two other ones where it was just a stinker of a game,” Hudson said. “Other than that, it was like, forget about it. It was like Nintendo-type stuff."