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Clean Start
Tom Verducci
July 16, 2001
Considered washed up by the lowly Devil Rays, John Burkett has reinvented himself as an ace in Atlanta
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July 16, 2001

Clean Start

Considered washed up by the lowly Devil Rays, John Burkett has reinvented himself as an ace in Atlanta

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Turnarounds

In addition to John Burkett, here are the pitchers who have had the most dramatic changes in performance this season relative to 2000.

Player, Team

2000 Stats

2001 Stats

Behind the Surprise

Mounds of Success

Jose Cabrera, Braves

2-3

5.92 ERA

5-2

1.10 ERA

Astros castoff has better movement on fastball; in setup role has stranded 10 of 13 inherited runners

Omar Daal, Phillies

4-19

6.14 ERA

9-2

4.69 ERA

Improved location and fastball have made a difference—so have Phillies hitters (7.2 runs per game in Daal's starts)

Joe Mays, Twins

7-15

5.56 ERA

11-5

3.02 ERA

Throwing strikes and letting Minnesota's oft-spectacular fielders do the work behind him

Paul Quantrill, Blue Jays

2-5

4.52 ERA

7-2

2.13 ERA

Consistently getting ahead of hitters and fully recovered from broken right femur suffered in 1999 snowmobiling accident

Tim Wakefield, Red Sox

6-10

5.48 ERA

6-2

2.58 ERA

Mixing in fastball and curve to go with bread-and-butter knuckler

Heaps of Trouble

Scott Elarton, Astros

17-7

4.81 ERA

4-8

6.92 ERA

Glitch in release point led to struggles with command

Tom Glavine, Braves

21-9

3.40 ERA

7-5

4.55 ERA

Aching shoulder led to uncharacteristic wildness; walks have jumped from 1.9 per start in 2000 to 3.3 this year

Rick Helling, Rangers

16-13

4.48 ERA

5-8

5.54 ERA

In early season, fastball topped off in the mid-80s; surrendered 12 home runs in first 56? innings

Livan Hernandez, Giants

17-11

3.75 ERA

6-11

6.07 ERA

Velocity and control woes; high pitch counts (average 113 per start in past five years) may be catching up with him

David Wells, White Sox

20-8

4.11 ERA

5-7

4.47 ERA

Showing his age? Herniated disks have hampered 38-year-old Boomer since his arrival from the Blue Jays

Gabe White, Rockies

11-2

2.36 ERA

1-6

8.05 ERA

After career year in 2000, lost command; served up 10 home runs in first 35? innings of this season

5 for in saves

0 for 1 in saves

Turner field in Atlanta is the Buckingham Palace of pitching. It is royalty's home address. The National League hasn't fielded an All-Star team without a Braves pitcher in more than a decade. Six of the league's last 10 Cy Young Award winners and eight of its last 15 20-game winners have pitched for Atlanta. That lineage includes blue-blood names such as Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Neagle and Millwood. This season, to the consternation of most everyone in baseball and the amusement of the Braves, the line of succession is being carried on by a complete commoner.

Say hello (as well as, Where have you been all these years?) to John Burkett, an unassuming 36-year-old righthander who is this season's most unlikely All-Star pitcher. The surprise is not just that Burkett is an avowed computer geek whose clubhouse moniker, Gator, is derived from the name of �ber-nerd Bill Gates, or that his other favorite pastimes—bowling and doing laundry—won't exactly show up in the X Games anytime soon. And it's not just that the 6'3", 215-pound, somewhat doughy, gray-flecked Burkett typically flips his fastball up to the plate at a pedestrian 86 mph. And it's not just that he's such an easygoing guy that he's still lounging in his skivvies 20 minutes before he pitches. No, what really makes him such an interloper among the star sect is that only a year ago the hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays cut him.

To understand the severity of such an insult, think of Burkett as the rough equivalent of a comedian who can't get a gig in the Catskills. "I definitely thought I might be done," says Burkett (rhymes with WORK-it). "If a contending team hadn't wanted me, I would have retired."

Instead, Burkett is the only big league pitcher whose ERA at the All-Star break (2.49, which ranked second in the National League to teammate Greg Maddux's 2.41) wasn't too far off of his bowling average (230). "Unbelievable! Fantastic!" normally uneffusive Atlanta manager Bobby Cox says of Burkett. "He's been the biggest story of the National League."

Says Braves general manager John Schuerholz, "With any luck at all, any luck, he'd be 10-2. That's how well he's pitched. He's been incredible." Instead, Burkett was 6-6, largely because Atlanta had scored two runs or fewer in eight of his 19 starts. He reached the All-Star break ranked fifth in the league in innings (126?), sixth in strikeouts (110) and sixth in opponents' batting average (.218). "Burky deserves to be an All-Star more than I do—that's a fact," says Maddux (10-5 at the break), who was not selected for the midsummer classic.

Burkett was named an All-Star once before, in 1993 (his third full big league season), when he won 22 games for the San Francisco Giants and finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting. "I'm pitching better now than I ever have," he says. "Better than '93. I've always had pretty good command. But now the ball is moving later, sharper. I heard that a hitter's eyes cannot follow the ball over the last five feet to the plate. So if you have late movement, you're going to be tough to hit. That's what my ball is doing."

The British royals had their Fergie. The upper-crust Braves, thanks to Tampa Bay, have Burkett, whom they found, appropriately enough, in a Laundromat. "He does the laundry at home [in South Lake, Texas] all the time," says his wife, Laura. "He's very good at it. He's a night owl. The kids [twins, son Maxwell and daughter Avery, 6, and daughter Reid, 5] and I go to bed, and he stays up to do the laundry."

In January 2000, Burkett signed with the Devil Rays after the six nondescript seasons (58-67) with the Giants, Florida Marlins and Texas Rangers that followed his breakout year in '93. Tampa Bay's manager, Larry Rothschild, had been his pitching coach while Burkett was with the Marlins in 1995 and '96. "He pitched Opening Day one year, and I remember going to the bullpen 20 minutes before the first pitch and he wasn't there," Rothschild says. "Fifteen minutes before the first pitch, and he's still not there. Now I'm getting a little worried, thinking, What happened? About four or five minutes before the game he strolls in, goes through his warmup routine and is ready to go. That's John. The other thing I remember is that I thought he could pitch until he was 40 to 45 years old, because of his style. He was effortless."

In the spring of 2000, however, Rothschild saw a different Burkett in the Devil Rays' camp. He saw a pitcher laboring with a shorter, more restricted motion. Burkett had degenerated into a junkball pitcher over the previous three-plus seasons with the Rangers, during which he had pitched through shoulder soreness, struggled to cope with the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington and lost faith in his sinking fastball. To compensate for his failing heater, Burkett had learned to throw a curveball from teammates Aaron Sele and Rick Helling.

Rothschild wanted to keep Burkett as a reclamation project. He told Burkett he would benefit from playing catch at distances up to 200 feet, an arm-strengthening drill known as long-tossing. "The reason was that long-tossing forces you to throw the ball naturally," Rothschild says. "I could see he was trying to force things."

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