If Pirates pitching prospect Mike Burrows is looking for a walk-out song, he might want to check out Dead or Alive's 1985 hit “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).” If you happen to be singing it while reading this edition of the MLB Pipeline Pitching Lab, you’re welcome.
Taken in the 11th round of the 2018 Draft from the Connecticut high school ranks, Burrows has ridden his spin rates all the way to Triple-A this season at the age of 22. Now the Pirates’ No. 8 prospect, Burrows’ stuff has obviously improved markedly from his prep days in the Nutmeg State and a big reason why has been his embracing the data behind what makes his repertoire so successful.
That started in 2019, when the right-hander was pitching in short-season ball. He tended to try and live down in the zone at that point, but once he bought into what the advanced metrics were saying, he started to change his approach.
“Our tech guy was bringing it up to me and I had no idea what any of that stuff meant, but he said I had good spin rates and started to tell me I shouldn't be throwing to the bottom of the zone, it should be higher in the zone with the fastball,” Burrows said. “And once I started hearing that stuff, and once I started figuring out that spin rates play and into what part of the zone you should be throwing the baseball … I really dove in during COVID and came out of there knowing everything about myself and what I should be doing with the baseball when I’m on the mound.”
The results have followed suit. Even though he missed a good amount of time in 2021 with an oblique injury, he was still dominant in High-A, striking out better than 12 per nine and holding hitters to a .143 batting average in 49 innings with Greensboro and then throwing well in the Arizona Fall League. This year, he shut down Double-A hitters, earning a mid-June promotion to Triple-A and a trip to the Futures Game.
Burrows talked in detail with MLB Pipeline earlier this season about how he makes the most out of his three-pitch mix.
Burrows throws his four-seam up to 97 mph and it’s averaged 95 mph since he arrived in Triple-A this season. Spin-rate wise, it’s averaged around 2,300 rpm, putting him in the 78th percentile at that level. He throws it for strikes and gets a decent amount of swings and misses up in the zone with it. When it’s working for him, he’s able to repeat his mechanics and locate it consistently.
“It’s really getting out in front of it and making sure that I'm finishing every pitch and living at the top of the zone,” Burrows said. “It's all ball flight with that pitch. If I see it, and I can see it holding lane and holding tunnel and not dipping or diving, then I know it's in the right spot. So anything really thigh high with that pitch is where I want to be.
“When I start to come off of that stuff, it's really just me pulling off the pitch. And I end up having some cut to it, which actually sometimes plays in my favor; it can be something different for them that they didn't see. It’s just locking it back in and making sure I'm holding the lane and thinking about staying in a tunnel, essentially blacking out everything that's not where I'm driving the pitch to.”
As solid as the spin on his fastball is, it’s Burrows’ breaking ball that really stands out in the spin rate department. He throws it in the 80-84 mph range with an average spin rate around 2,850 rpm, much higher than the MLB average and in the 96th percentile among Triple-A pitchers. It’s a spike curve, one that he’s learned to land for strikes and get hitters to chase out of the zone.
“If I want it for a strike, I'm throwing at the catcher's mask, letting it drop down into the bottom of the zone,” Burrows explained. “If I want it for a strike to ball, it's really just thinking about throwing it to, if the catcher’s got a Nike sign or an All-Star sign [on the chest protector], I'm throwing it to that and getting it to go below the zone.”
The biggest change in Burrows’ breaking ball has been in how hard he throws it. As he studied other pitchers, he realized he needed to ratchet up the velocity on the curve in order for it to be an out pitch at the highest level.
“I was really just bringing up the intent with it … in the last couple of years because I was throwing it below 80 miles an hour, and now it's above,” Burrows said. “[I was] just looking at numbers and how curveballs play in the big leagues, ones that are 80-plus are going to play a lot better than ones that are below 80, unless you're Rich Hill. It was really just looking at that stuff and seeing what hitters don't like to hit.”
Unlike his other two plus offerings, the changeup is all about killing spin. Burrows has learned to do that using a Vulcan split grip, with his middle finger providing the pressure to provide some side spin and horizontal movement.
It’s a pitch he didn’t have, or need, in high school, and it took him a while to find the right grip and feel for the pitch. Now he throws it nearly as often as his curve, a mid-80s offspeed pitch that misses bats and gets weak contact on the ground. The improvement of the pitch is a big reason why he’s risen as a legitimate starting pitching prospect, and not just a pitcher with a fastball-curve combination.
“The changeup is a big feel pitch,” Burrows said. “The curveball, I’ve thrown my whole life and I've always had feel with it and that was very natural for me. But getting a changeup was all about the feel of how I can throw it, when I can throw it. Getting to that point was really hard. So once I found a feel for it, then I could start throwing it in different counts and different situations, just building the confidence with it and working with it on the Trackman and in the bullpen.”
That included fiddling with grips and finding out what gave him the desired effect with the pitch.
“That's why I kind of went with the Vulcan, because when I didn't really split the fingers in the middle, that's when I actually had a riding changeup and it really was just a slower fastball,” Burrows said. “That was the hardest thing, getting it to stop riding and stop being a bad fastball and just bringing a little bit of vertical downward shape to it. And once I did that, it's been a lot of fun since.”