Wake Forest flamethrower Chase Burns blazed his path to Draft day

July 15th, 2024

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- When Chase Burns has a baseball in his right hand and hurls it toward home plate at 100 mph to strike out hitters with exceptional frequency, the righty's persona matches the heat of his pitches: fiery, self-assured, swaggering.

When the 21-year-old is off the mound and pondering his craft as he tries to further develop as a pitcher and competitor, his disposition reflects that of a scholar: reserved, curious, thinking.

It's almost as if Burns is two different people. To watch him pitch and then observe him off the field is a bit like a study in dual personalities. Almost complete opposites, yet definitely intertwined.

Listen to Burns talk, or listen to his Wake Forest teammates talk about him, and it becomes clear how those two personalities are related. Burns' inquisitive nature off the mound is what fuels that intense temperament on the mound -- always thinking, always learning, always looking for an edge in his game.

"I'm always going to be like that. It's how I was raised," he said. "I'm not going to sit there and get worse. I'm going to always try to get 1 percent better every day."

That work ethic has become Burns' calling card. Well, that and a nasty repertoire of pitches that made him the No. 2 overall pick by the Reds in the 2024 MLB Draft. The total package those traits create is what has scouts and other observers excited about Burns' potential.

"He's the best college pitcher I've seen," Wake Forest head coach Tom Walter said. "And that's no knock on Paul Skenes, who obviously shut us out for eight innings last year [in the College World Series] and was awesome, or Matt Harvey from North Carolina. ... Chase Burns is the best I've seen."

All one must do to understand such accolades is watch Burns pitch. He was already drafted once, by the Padres in the 20th round in 2021 out of high school, showing the faith generated by his raw stuff. But Burns opted for college instead, and as he's filled out and gained experience, that talent -- now much more polished -- is even more obvious.

His high-90s fastball, putaway slider, big curve and solid changeup have made him one of college baseball's top arms. The impressive arsenal led to 10 double-digit strikeout games in his first 13 starts this season, with five games of 14 or more strikeouts. He held opponents to three or fewer hits eight times during that span, including six no-hit innings against Western Carolina on May 4.

He’s been at or near the top of the Division 1 strikeout rankings all year, and he ranks among the leaders in batting average against and WHIP. Since transferring from Tennessee after last season, Burns has honed his game with an assist from Wake's heralded pitching lab, which helped him make mechanical tweaks to tame command issues that had plagued him while at Tennessee. The results can be seen in his significantly lowered WHIP and increased strikeout rate.

Here’s how those two complementary personalities helped make one dominant pitcher.

On the mound: 'A firecracker'

The Chase Burns mound experience is perhaps best exemplified by his career-high 16-strikeout performance against rival Clemson on May 10, a game in which he also set the Wake Forest record for most strikeouts in a season. Burns hit triple digits that night with his fastball, and his breaking and off-speed offerings routinely made Tigers hitters look foolish.

But what drew attention to his performance, almost as much as the nastiness of his pitches, were his eruptive reactions to big strikeouts. And that was perhaps best illustrated with his reaction to his 16th strikeout of the game.

With the tying run at the plate and two outs in the seventh, Burns threw an 88 mph slider to get Clemson's Nolan Nawrocki swinging. Burns exploded off the mound in a series of celebratory gyrations, fist pumps and screams as he glided back to the dugout. Though the strikeout set a new personal record and also got him out of a jam, the reaction wasn't that unusual for Burns. He had a similar reaction when he struck out the side in the third, and he's had numerous other emotional displays throughout his career. That's just typical Burns. He describes it as passion, and another way to help the team.

"I feel like I'm kind of like a firecracker on the mound," he said. "Baseball's a game of back and forth, of momentum. So when I'm out there on the mound, I'm just trying to get our momentum back. ... When you have momentum from your defense, it can go into offense really easily."

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Though he's conscious of his mound energy in one sense, he's unaware of it in another – especially when it comes to that end-of-inning jubilant euphoria.

"It just happens," Burns said after the Clemson game. "It's something we like to call 'flow,' that blackout state where you don’t really know what’s happening, you just go through the motions."

Whatever it is, his teammates love it.

"He's so confident in who he is and what he does," said slugger Nick Kurtz, another top Draft prospect. "You kind of see that emotion he has out on the mound, and it's so fun playing behind him at first base."

His coach appreciates the emotion, too.

"He had one game where he gave up a couple of kind of wind-blown home runs, and we were behind, and he's in the dugout getting guys fired up and saying, 'All right, let's put an inning together here.' He wasn't feeling sorry for himself. He was in there trying to figure out how to help us win," Walter said. "After he gave up one of the home runs, I think he struck out like 10 of his next 12 guys. That's the competitor in that guy."

Off the mound: 'Always asking ... always learning'

In discussions about Burns' off-field persona, a common theme emerges: I can't believe this is the same guy who's so flamboyant on the mound.

It's just part of what makes Burns so interesting, his teammates say.

"You would think he was maybe a loud, in-your-face type of guy. But off the field, he's super laid back," said teammate Seaver King, another of Wake's projected first-round picks. "When he's on the mound, it's a different animal."

That mound creature is fed by a pitching mind that doesn't seem to have an off switch. If Burns is around teammates, chances are he's talking baseball.

"I'm always asking them what works for them and kind of using that in my bag of tricks, whether it's routine-wise, recovery-wise," he said.

There's a particular bond with Josh Hartle, Wake's lefty starter, Burns' roommate and a fellow transfer – and yet another of the team's potential first-round picks. The two have known each other since high school, and they credit each other as important motivators.

Hartle describes Burns as a kind of baseball "running mate," someone to help push him to greatness.

"What makes him great is his mindset. He's one of the biggest competitors I've ever been around, and he's helped me elevate my mindset and my competitiveness too," Hartle said. "He's got all the intangibles to be really good."

Burns is equally complimentary of Hartle. He said it was clear from his earliest days at Wake that he and Hartle would be a unique pair, given their shared pitching curiosity. Even though they're completely different pitchers -- Hartle is more a finesse lefty -- there's plenty of insight going both ways.

"We're just always learning off each other -- his routines and stuff like that, what he's feeling, what I'm feeling," Burns said. "He takes me under his wing and I learn from him, so it's been awesome."

As much as pitching particulars dominate Burns' mind, they're only part of the equation. He wants to get inside hitters' heads, too, so he's equally eager to pick the brains of Wake's sluggers and soak up their perspectives.

"What's a hard pitch for you to hit? What are you thinking about up there if you're facing a guy like me?" he said he'll ask them. "So, always learning from those guys."

His curiosity extends even to the classroom. As well as the dance floor.

Burns took a beginner dance class during the spring 2024 semester that met on Fridays, his usual pitching day this season. The class, titled "Movement for All," included several dance genres and focused on "flexibility, coordination and efficiency of movement."

The timing of the class and his mound day was coincidental, but perhaps a bit fortuitous. Because, as it turns out, dancing and pitching share some similarities.

Both require foot strength, toe strength and wrist strength. So one can help with the other, and vice versa.

"Getting into that class was kind of fun -- a lot of stretching, a lot of individual pieces that go into it," Burns said. "Doing all those movements in class, you've gotta be sort of coordinated ... have a lot of balance, and it helps me on the mound quite a bit."

The future: 'He deserves every bit of success'

So grounded and logical is Burns that it's hard for him to think much past the here and now, even when it comes to the Draft. He expected to experience "a handful of emotions" and gratitude when his name was called, but he wouldn't speculate beyond that.

"I really can't talk too much about it because it hasn't happened yet," he said, "but I'm just hoping for the best."

Asked how he'll feel hearing his teammates' names called, however …

"Oh, I'm gonna be so excited," he said. "I'm with them every day. We all see the hard work and sacrifice that they've put into the game, so it's gonna be really cool. I'm gonna be really excited for them."

What a coincidence: That's almost exactly what they say about him, noting that his flourishing in 2024 is a direct result of his ongoing desire to learn and improve.

"It's really fun just to see him succeed and do what he does every day," Kurtz said. "He works really hard and he deserves every bit of success that he gets."