Tough love sparks offseason of change for Burleson

January 29th, 2024

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Cardinals outfielder/first baseman/DH Alec Burleson didn’t need the club to sign veteran first baseman/DH Matt Carpenter earlier this month to motivate him for the season ahead. No, Burleson’s motivation came months earlier, and it stemmed largely from a very real and raw conversation with Cardinals coaches where they hit him square in the gut with some tough love.

“Just being told that I need to be better in the outfield and that they aren’t comfortable playing me in the outfield -- I took it personal,” said Burleson, who will head to Spring Training in a couple of weeks to likely battle for one of the spots on the team’s 26-player Opening Day roster. “That’s the one that sticks out to me -- that I need to play better defense and I agree. I took it personal in a good sense.

“Just coming up and being one of the best players and then being told, ‘You’re not good enough!’ You take it personal, right? Not in a bad way. You’re like, ‘OK, I agree with you and it’s going to be better.’ That’s all I want is honesty and no beating around the bush. … That’s the way I like it and that’s the way I like to go about things.”

Burleson, 25, went about things differently this offseason by working with a nutritionist to rework his diet and rework how his body moves around the outfield. Predominantly a star hitter when he played collegiately at East Carolina, the Cardinals experimented with the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Burleson more in the outfield the past two seasons in an effort to get his impressive bat-to-ball skills in the lineup more.

Ultimately, his struggles in the field -- and his tough luck at the plate -- limited Burleson’s chances as his first full season wore on. His frustration-filled 2023 ended early when he fractured his left thumb while sliding head-first into third base. Not long after that injury and as he started reflecting on how he could be better in the future, Burleson met with manager Oliver Marmol, former bench coach Joe McEwing and outfield coach Willie McGee, and he was told that his fate with the club would likely revolve around him becoming more mobile and reliable in the outfield.

It was quite the shot to the ego for a player who won the International League batting title in Triple-A in 2022 with a .331 average, and someone who always thought he’d be able to ride his bat to success in the big leagues. That no-holds-barred talk kick-started an offseason in which Burleson changed his diet, dropped 12 pounds and drilled so much in the outfield that he feels much more comfortable out there.

Like with the heart to heart with his coaches, Burleson didn’t beat around the bush when talking about where his focus has been.

“The body,” Burleson said bluntly. “Getting everything moving better … losing weight … getting faster -- I’m checking all those boxes. I’m ticking off a lot of things that I wanted to accomplish this offseason. It’s coming together.”

In addition to being a steadier fielder, Burleson is hopeful that his improved conditioning and body compensation will lead to some better luck at the plate. In 107 games in 2023, he hit .244 with eight home runs and 36 RBIs, but those numbers belied how well he swung the bat. Burleson’s expected batting average -- numbers calculated based on exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, sprint speed -- was .277, 33 points higher than his actual average. Similarly, Burleson’s actual slugging percentage was 59 points lower than his expected slugging percentage. Factor in his low whiff rate (17.7 percent, 91st percentile in baseball) and low strikeout rate (13 percent, 95th percentile) and the Cardinals still see Burleson as a young player with a ton of potential now that his defense is improving.

“Competition is a good thing, and I love competition because it drives you to be better,” said Marmol, referring to several of his team’s young hopefuls pushing to improve.

Burleson is more motivated than ever to show the Cardinals he’s up for the competition and he can be counted on defensively. Lars Nootbaar, Tommy Edman and Jordan Walker are expected to be the starters come Opening Day, with Dylan Carlson being the primary backup. Burleson wants to show that he deserves reps in the outfield and at DH.

“They suggested that I needed to be more reliable in the outfield and I took it personally -- but not in a bad way,” Burleson said. “I’ve changed my body and changed a lot of things and I’m moving a lot better. So it’s important to get into the lineup and give myself a better opportunity to play every day.”