Monday, March 23, 2015

Random Ex-Brave: John Burkett

(actually wrote this up Saturday to publish on Sunday, but something went wonky)

There's a lot that can be said about Leo Mazzone as Braves pitching coach. Some believe that anyone could look good when you oversee three Hall of Fame pitchers, though wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that Mazzone helped them reach the Hall? Others faulted Mazzone with young pitchers who maybe didn't want to throw six inches off the outside portion of the plate every time. One thing's not up for debate and that's how Mazzone seemed gifted at squeezing out a year or two out of a veteran long thought to be done. Chris Hammond should owe Mazzone residual checks for the money he made off the Yankees in the free agent market. In 2000, three teams said "it's not me, it's you" to Darren Holmes as they ushered him out of the clubhouse, but Mazzone found nearly 100 innings of sub-3.00 ERA out of him. Jaret Wright as a broken down reminder of the Indians' failures before Leo. The Yankees again wondered how they got duped into giving Wright millions to not look the same without Mazzone.

Burkett at the 2000 All-Star Game
Otto Gruele Jr. | Getty Images
Another of the group of guys who found themselves rolling in the dough after Leo did his magic was John Burkett. A former All-Star, Burkett had been a big money bust for the Rangers before arriving in Atlanta. But presto, change-o, he was back in the All-Star Game. That's just how things went for the Braves during The Streak.

A graduate of Beaver High School (yep), Burkett was a sixth rounder by the San Francisco Giants back in 1983. It would take him quite awhile to establish himself in the majors, but Burkett would finish fourth in the 1990 Rookie of the Year voting. He was a pretty solid middle of the rotation guy for the Giants over the next two seasons, but appeared to break out in 1993. He led the league in wins and finished fourth in the Cy Young that year. He pitched in the final three games for the Giants, getting a win to keep pace with the Braves before San Francisco ultimately failed on the final day of the year. Still, it was a productive year for Burkett that included a trip to the All-Star Game.

He took a moderate step back in 1994 before the strike and the Giants would let him head to free agency. The Marlins, desperate for any talent in their rotation, overpaid to bring Burkett to Miami for $18.45M over five years. They tired of him after a year-and-a-half, dealing Burkett to the Rangers along with Ryan Dempster for Rick Helling.

Arlington was not a good spot for Burkett. He wasn't a strikeout guy and gave up too many flyballs. That led to a lot of runs in Arlington, especially in the steroid-infused late 90's. In 600.1 ING with the Rangers, Burkett had a 5.13 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. Because of the park and the ERAs of the time, Burkett wasn't as bad as those numbers might look as his adjusted ERA+ was just 4% below the adjusted league average, but still, that was hardly impressive.

Burkett landed a make-good minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the 2000 season, but by the end of camp, the Rays said, "We'd rather see what we have with Tanyon Sturtze, Esteban Yan, and Dave Eiland." The Rays would then lose 92 games. Ouchie.

But the Braves were desperate. Injuries to Odalis Perez and more importantly, John Smoltz, had wrecked the staff. It would force the Braves to use Terry Mulholland as a starter before ultimately growing tired of him and acquiring Andy Ashby. But before Ashby, there was Burkett, who signed on to join the Braves for another division title in 2000. He wasn't great and was often used in relief, but he did post the best K/9 of his career with 7.4, a good K better than his Rangers days. It wouldn't stay his personal best for long.

Burkett would re-sign with the Braves for the 2001 season, but the Braves had to think he was fifth starter/swingman material at best. Smoltzie was expected back at some point and Odalis looked like he would be ready for opening day. Plus, Jason Marquis was expected to make a jump. Burkett was just around to provide depth for the rotation until better options forced him to the pen or the unemployment line.

A funny thing would happen, though. Burkett started to look good. Like really good. After a pair of unimpressive outings to begin the year, Burkett tossed seven scoreless against the Mets. Three games later, he was masterful in a three-hitter against the Arizona Diamondbacks, his first shutout since 1996. From that Mets game, his third start of the year, until August 26th, or the 28th start of the season, Burkett had a 2.21 ERA over 175 innings. He K'd 154 in that time frame, which was more than all but once full season of his career (he had 155 in 1996). The highlight of this streak, aside from the shutout, was a trip to the All-Star Game where many felt he should get starting consideration. That ultimately went to Randy Johnson, but Burkett would throw a scoreless fourth inning as the NL eventually lost.

However, if someone points to a streak of games, it typically comes with the caveat that things weren't nearly as good after that streak. Burkett went from masterful to ugly as in his final six starts, Burkett was touched up for a nearly 6.00 ERA. Suddenly, batters weren't dinking little flyballs to the outfield while hitting grounders up the middle that turned into outs. Now they were finding the gaps and runs were scoring.

Burkett would right the ship briefly to throw six solid against the Astros in the NLDS, giving him his second postseason victory. However, Burkett would flop in Game Three of the NLCS. With the series tied, Burkett gave up a two-run double to Steve Finley early before loading the bases with one out in the fifth. A Chipper Jones error and Finley striking against Finley led to three more runs. Braves would lose 5-1 and would lose the next two games to sent the Diamondbacks to the World Series, which they would win.

A free agent, Burkett parlayed his best season of pitching into $11M with the Boston Red Sox. He had a 4.85 ERA with the Sox during his time with them, though he started two games in the 2003 playoffs despite meh numbers. He was on the mound for Game Six of the ALCS against the Yankees. He left after surrendering the lead in the fourth inning to the Bronx Bombers, but they would rally to win the game and force a Game Seven. Grady Little may have preferred just losing Game Six.

After the Red Sox said goodbye to Burkett, he spent most of the winter open for another shot at baseball glory, but ultimately retired ahead of the 2004 season. He has since began a second career. Bowling. His pitching set-up finally makes sense...

More Random Ex-Braves
Derrek Lee (2010)
Kevin Gryboski (2002-05)
Brian Jordan (1999-2001, 2005-06)

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