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

July 15, 2001

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 uber-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 2/3), 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."

Rothschild, though, was overruled on Burkett by general manager
Chuck LaMar, who was enamored of young righthanders Ryan Rupe and
Dan Wheeler. When Burkett asked Rothschild during spring training
about his chances of making the club, Rothschild told him about
LaMar's thinking. Burkett asked for his release and planned to
head home to South Lake--after attending to his laundry. The
Braves contacted his agent while Burkett's clothes were in the
spin cycle of the washer and closed the deal before time was up
on the dryer. Says Burkett, "John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox called
me on my cell phone while I was in the Laundromat. I had just
gotten released by the Devil Rays, and now the Braves were
excited to get me. That was a big deal to me."

Burkett, a sharp student of the game, quickly prospered in
Atlanta's collegial, think-tank atmosphere. From pitching coach
Leo Mazzone he rediscovered the importance of commanding the
down-and-away fastball, which Mazzone believes is the key to all
successful pitching. He learned from watching how lefty Tom
Glavine, no matter the count or situation, never gives in to
hitters by throwing pitches near the center of the plate. Mostly,
he absorbed the ways and wisdom of Maddux, a version of himself
evolved to a higher level of pitching. "If I had to pick five
guys who throw the most like me, he'd be one of them," Maddux
says. "Come to think of it, I'm not sure I could come up with
anyone who's more like me than he is. He doesn't throw it past
anyone. He relies on movement and location."

It wasn't long before Maddux began revealing some tricks. He
noticed, for instance, that before winding up Burkett stood on
the rubber with his feet pointed not directly at home plate but
slightly toward the third-base dugout. Maddux told him to realign
his toes. Likewise, Maddux saw that from the stretch position
Burkett's left foot was slightly open in relation to his back
foot and recommended that he adjust his left foot so his feet
would be parallel. "I made both changes and noticed I got much
better command of my pitches," Burkett says. Meanwhile, Burkett
stuck to Rothschild's long-tossing program, which he says
returned the life to his fastball and the stamina to his outings.
(Asked if he has made any dietary changes since joining the
game's most regal staff, Burkett laughs and says, "Switched from
beer to Crown Royal.")

Last year Burkett won 10 games for the Braves in 22 starts and
nine relief appearances. The Boston Red Sox and the Anaheim
Angels had seen enough to offer him more than $2 million during
the off-season as a free agent, but he took slightly less ($1.75
million) to remain enrolled at Pitching U. He and Maddux, whom he
almost always follows in the rotation, have rescued Atlanta this
season, allowing the Braves to remain only a game behind the
first-place Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East
even while injuries and ineffectiveness have limited Glavine,
John Smoltz and Kevin Millwood to a combined 10-10 record.

"It's a great advantage for me to follow Greg and see how he
attacks hitters and how they react to his stuff, since our stuff
is so similar," Burkett says. At the break he was 5-4 with a 1.56
ERA when he pitched against the same team Maddux had faced the
previous day--and 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA when he didn't.

In Atlanta, Burkett's contributions have gone beyond those on
the field, as evidenced before a June 30 game, when he held an
Introduction to CD Burning class in the food room of the
clubhouse. He has helped 10 of his teammates, including Maddux,
purchase and configure laptops and is their resident IT
troubleshooter.

Who knew that a cybersurfer who bookmarks PBA.com (he has bowled
in five tour events and got into the money for the first time
last year in Dallas, when he finished 32nd and earned $1,360)
would turn out to be one of baseball's hottest pitchers?
Rothschild, he thinks, may have been right after all. "I can
pitch into my 40s," Burkett says. "I've never had a streak of
starts like this. But I'm no longer surprised and I don't think,
'When's it going to end?' There's no reason it'll stop. The next
three years or so I expect to be pitching like I am now."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Rubber game Maddux's subtle tips on foot alignment gave Burkett renewed confidence and command. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Lefty sympathizer With strong support from the Phillies' bats, Daal has been a radically different pitcher this year.

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

Mounds of Success

Player, Team 2000 Stats 2001 Stats
Behind the Surprise

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

Player, Team 2000 Stats 2001 Stats
Behind the Surprise

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 1/3 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
5 for 9 in saves 0 for 1 in saves
After career year in 2000, lost command; served up 10 home runs
in first 35 1/3 innings of this season

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)