Never Satisfied, Auburn’s Burns Building Off Experience

(Photo via AL.com)

Tanner Burns has the fastball and the pedigree. The rest is quickly catching up. Baseball America’s top prep player from 2017 to make it to campus, Burns made enough of a first impression on one of the SEC’s other coaches so much, he earned an invite to the Collegiate National Team. “(LSU) Coach (Paul) Mainieri is the head coach, and I beat them this year for Auburn,” Burns said of his selection to Team USA. “He called (Auburn) Coach (Butch) Thompson and asked if I wanted to pitch for him this summer. I got a good opportunity; I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Despite the early accolades, Burns is adamant there’s work to be done this offseason. “I’ve been throwing a lot, so I’m going to get a break. Mainly work out, get in the best possible shape I can be in, so I can be the best possible pitcher I can be,” Burns said. “Things to work on next season: limit the walks. I had a lot of walks. I’m also going to add a cut fastball to my arsenal, so that can be an out pitch. Get my body in the best possible shape and add a pitch to my arsenal.”

According to pitching coach Steve Smith, Burns tinkering with his arsenal is nothing new. “The very first time I’d met him, before he’d thrown a pitch here at all, he wanted to talk about (developing) a slider with me,” Smith recalled. “The Monday after what I thought was his best outing to that point (against Arkansas), he comes to me and wants to know if I think he ought to throw a sinker. He asked me, ‘do you think I can pitch in the big leagues with three pitches?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, but you don’t have to pitch in the big leagues this week.’ He’s just got such a thirst to learn.”

Leading up to the Collegiate National Team, Smith said that it was Burns’ breaking ball- not the cutter- which was at the forefront of his attention. “His breaking ball has always played up- it plays better in games than it does in the bullpen,” Smith observed. “But I don’t think he feels like it’s really a dominant pitch, and I agree with that. So I think a lot of it is just him throwing it.” Smith was quick to note that Burns has had limited reps with the offering, giving him ample time to figure out exactly what shape it will take. “Heck, he didn’t have to learn a breaking ball when he was growing up. He threw harder than everybody else,” Smith noted. “So he’s at a point in the game now where he’s really trying to learn how to spin the ball and get a feel for what kind of breaking ball he’s going to have. It’s (currently) somewhere between a curveball and a slider. Which way’s it going to go- toward a curveball or toward a slider? I think…he’s throwing more of a (lateral) breaking ball now.”

With the CNT, Burns worked in shorter stints, tossing 7.2 innings while coming out of the bullpen for the first time in his college career. “That’s a little bit different,” Burns confirmed. “As a starter, I know when to warm up, I know when I’m going to go. Bullpen, you’ve got to get ready in 5 minutes.” Neither his mentality nor his repertoire changed in the different role, though. “I still had the three pitches- fastball, changeup, curveball. I use that all the time. I also have been doing- you know how Marcus Stroman messes up your timing? I can do that, too. I quick pitch, hold the ball, double-pump.”

Smith sums up both Burns’ mound presence and his unceasing desire to perfect his repertoire under the term “creativity,” and, even though some coaches might grow frustrated with a player who’s constantly tinkering, Smith is happy to let Burns find his own way. “I think you let him lead,” Smith said. “The game itself is going to tell him what he’s good at. I certainly don’t want to get in front of him and keep him from trying something that he likes and really believes in…. It takes some trust. I think he and I really hit that early on.” Burns echoed those sentiments when speaking about his pitching coach. “He and I, we’re really close. Being around him every day, I can pick his brain, and he can show me how to (develop my pitches). Basically, (helping) with my arm slot and messing around with the seams with my fingers.”

Despite that trust, it was not Smith who inspired Burns to commit to Auburn. Indeed, the pitching coach was hired in September 2017, long after Burns had committed and after he reaffirmed his desire to attend school leading up to the June draft. Instead, it was the Tigers’ head coach who drew Burns to campus, a tall task considering Burns grew up a diehard supporter of the state’s other notable university. “I was an Alabama football fan- one of those die-hard ‘roll tiders,’” Burns admitted. “But my dream is to play in the big leagues. I’ve seen Coach Thompson’s track record of putting guys in the big leagues (Kendall Graveman, Brandon Woodruff, and Dakota Hudson, among others) and it really stood out to me. He must be doing something or saying something to get those guys to the big leagues. I want to be a big league pitcher, and I think being at Auburn for three years gets me closer to being in the big leagues….He’s been all that I expected.”

Any initial resentment Tiger fans may hold for Burns’ Tuscaloosa fandom- he even committed to Alabama as a high school underclassman before withdrawing due to the departure of former Tide coach Mitch Gaspard- should be washed away by his performance. Despite his self-criticism regarding his command, Burns posted a 3.01 ERA with over two strikeouts per walk in the nation’s toughest conference. “I thought he had a phenomenal year,” Smith opined. “We beat Florida twice, and he’s (one of) the guys that did it.” Indeed, Burns started Auburn’s superregional victory over the top-seeded Gators, setting them up for some late-game theatrics by holding Florida to one run over six innings. He only struck out three hitters that afternoon, but Smith thinks the strikeouts will come in bunches.

“I think it’s more about putting a guy away,” Smith said when asked about Burns’ assertion that he needs to command the ball better. “I bet a high percentage of his walks were two-strike walks- he didn’t have the breaking ball to put guys away, and they keep fouling balls off until they finally draw a walk. With something that he can miss bats with other than a fastball, I think the walks will go the other way and the strikeouts will (tick up).”

It’s not just the coaching staff who sees big things in Burns’ future. He quickly formed a close relationship with a junior starter who happened to be college baseball’s best pitcher. Encouraged by Smith, Burns did his best to follow Casey Mize, the future number one overall draftee. “We talk every day,” Burns said. “He threw on Fridays, I threw on Saturdays, so I always knew how he attacked hitters. Off the field, his main thing was ‘every pitch has a meaning to it,’ he never took a pitch for granted. Every pitch he threw with authority. I never thought about that; that’s something I’ve really picked up on. Every pitch has a meaning to it, and you need to throw it with authority. Playing in the SEC, you really can’t take off a pitch or it’s going to be a souvenir.  It’s a big boy league. You’ve got to have every pitch and pound the strike zone. Don’t flirt with hitters when you get 0-2. Go right at them, attack them. That’s one thing he really told me- attack the hitters.”

Beyond observing Mize’s sequencing and on-mound approach, Burns picked up subtler characteristics as well. “Casey was the consummate professional in terms of his routine, his preparation,” Smith said. “That’s really where Tanner can excel.” The similarities end there, though, at least for now. Notably, Burns’ goal of adding a cutter was in response to Mize’s domination with the offering. “That was his pitch. I saw what it did for him.”

“Casey Mize had four pitches,” Smith noted. “Tanner’s pitched a lot with just the fastball. That’s why his motivation’s so high. He’s thinking, man, if I can come up with a breaking ball that’s pretty good, I’ve got a chance to be really good, which is true.’ He’s got an exceptional fastball; that’s his gift. Everything else we can add to that.” It’s an opinion shared by scouts, with Fangraphs’ most recent draft rankings placing Burns among the top ten talents in the 2020 class.

There’s much work to be done in the interim, though- pitches to develop, walks to eliminate, games to win. “We’re just waiting to knock that door down to Omaha,” Burns said of a Tiger team returning many key contributors from last year’s superregional club. “We all know what it takes. We’ve all been through a fall. We’ve been through SEC conference ball. We’ve been through the tournament. We all know what to expect, it’s just putting together the puzzle pieces.”

In the center of that puzzle will be Tanner Burns, sporting a mid-90’s fastball, an array of developing secondary pitches, and a fire unmatched by most, even among those at the highest levels of college baseball. “He’s a great competitor,” Smith concluded. “It may not get talked about much, but that’s what I learned about him, and you can’t teach that. That’s the separator.”

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