Burke used two-month absence to work on mental growth

June 16th, 2024

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

It’s been months since spoke about what he calls “the worst day of my career.”

On April 12, the Rangers had just beat the Astros at Minute Maid Park in Houston. For all intents and purposes, it should have been a happy occasion in the early part of the season, before the struggle to get back over .500.

But Burke was having anything but a happy time.

The left-hander, pitching with the Rangers up nine runs in the seventh inning of that game, surrendered four -- including two on a home run to Kyle Tucker -- before his outing was over after recording just two outs.

After manager Bruce Bochy removed him from the game, Burke says he stormed into the tunnel behind the dugout, threw his glove against a door before subsequently punching it and breaking his right hand.

“Punching the door wasn’t the smartest thing, no,” Burke said after rejoining the team on Wednesday in Los Angeles. “I was definitely frustrated. Frustrated, embarrassed, probably a whole combination of emotions. It definitely was the worst day of my career, whether it be the outing itself or the outcome after and breaking my hand and realizing what I had just done and what I had done to the team, more importantly. Hopefully I can try to pick up and be better for them.”

Burke wouldn’t say he viewed the two months he had between his injury and his return to the big league club as a punishment, but he did use it as time to reflect on the situation that he got himself into. He spent those two months in Arizona and, in his own words, had hours a day to think about what had gone wrong.

“He called me and [pitching coach Mike Maddux],” said Bochy. “He was [apologetic]. He understands it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. We all make mistakes.”

Burke understands that people like Bochy and Maddux and general manager Chris Young were obviously not happy with him at that moment.

“I was unhappy with myself as well,” Burke said. “And I mean, I deserved every bit of it. Sometimes you gotta look for the bright side of things and I thought, ‘Hey, I'm gonna get two months to go try to figure out what the hell I'm doing wrong.’ I just wanted to make sure that whenever I did come back, they gave me a chance to get over the fact that I could be good again.”

Burke had a breakout 2022 season in which he was named Rookie of the Year by the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America after posting a 1.97 ERA in 82 1/3 innings, but he has struggled mightily since.

He compiled a 4.37 ERA over 59 2/3 innings in ‘23 and clearly lost the trust of the coaching staff down the stretch, so he was rarely used (two appearances) throughout the World Series run. Over his first five relief appearances with the big league club this season, he had a 15.00 ERA.

While Burke spent those months in Arizona undergoing a lot of reflection and mental growth, it was also about getting back to being who he knows he can be on the mound.

“I would say just getting out there and trying to get back to being a pitcher rather than a thrower,” he explained. “I feel like it's kind of the biggest thing for me. And a lot of times in situations, I get myself in trouble and I want to throw a fastball as hard as I can, every single time. Hitters started to pick up on that and hit the crap out of my fastball. In the last two months, I was able to get back and be comfortable throwing a whole bunch of offspeed pitches and getting confidence in those situations.”

After realizing that he was throwing more fastballs than almost any other reliever in the Major Leagues (69.4% four-seamers in 2024), Burke knew it was time for a change. His fastball is good, he said, but not that good. In his own words, guys like Aroldis Chapman shouldn't mix their pitches far more than he does, with an objectively better fastball.

Maybe part of that is mental growth as well. Knowing that he shouldn’t be throwing as many fastballs as he was is a type of self awareness that Burke didn’t have over the last 18 months.

“I tried to use the time away as a little bit of a reset, yeah,” he said. “I used it to try to figure out many things with baseball, outside of baseball, everything. I knew it was going to be 60 days, so I tried to make the best of it.”