The Tigers, stocked with young starting pitching, look to Beau Burrows to help solidify the back-end of games in 2020 and beyond
It has been said that the best relievers are failed starters. Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman are a few of the big relief arms in baseball that had a background in starting before making the switch out of the dugout and into the bullpen for their major league careers.
It is obviously unfair to compare Tigers prospect Beau Burrows to any of those names; and for every name that has succeeded at a similar transition, there is one that does not find much help from the change. However, the Tigers prospect is looking to make such a change in 2020; as the Tigers announced he would be operating exclusively out of the bullpen this season.
The move comes after a 2019 campaign in which he made 15 appearances for Triple-A Toledo, all of which were starts. He would give up 68 hits in 65.1 innings for the Mud Hens and register a 5.51 ERA. Strangely, despite averaging giving up over one hit per inning pitched, his strikeout numbers have remained where they have been across his minor league career at 8.4 K’s per 9 innings.
Burrows’ background with the Tigers begins in the 2015 MLB Draft, where Detroit would select him 22nd overall out of Weatherford High School in Texas (yes, Walker Buehler was chosen two picks later. No, I do not want to discuss it). It was typical for the Tigers to select a starting pitcher with southern ties in the first round, but it was not as common for them to choose a high school starter and especially not at his size.
Detroit has a recent history of being careful with rushing their prep talent and Burrows was no exception. He would spend his first full year in West Michigan before splitting time between High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie in 2017. In 2018, he would spend a full year in Erie as a 21-year old before finding Toledo last season.
The Texas native pitched relatively consistently through his minor league career except for some performances in 2016 and 2017 which had evaluators and fans both tilting their heads. There were some whispers coming out that the Tigers coaches and player development folks were encouraging Burrows to pitch to contact.
The numbers would back the noise–take 2016, for example. Beau entered his first season of professional baseball only striking out 67 batters over 97 innings while giving up 87 hits over the same time frame. The strategy worked to an extent because his ERA was still just 3.15 that season despite all the hits, but to encourage a teenager in his first full season of professional baseball to not try to miss bats is quite a strategy.
Fast forward to 2020 and Burrows is faced with a transition at the highest level of the minor leagues. Luckily for him, Detroit has not forced Burrows to learn on the fly in the Tigers MLB bullpen in 2020. In fact, he was part of the first round of roster cuts made this spring by the club. Still, a change like this at the Triple-A level is a challenge for any pitcher. Ironically, the best bullpen arms miss bats consistently; so a change of strategy may be necessary as well.
Pat Caputo of 97.1 The Ticket mentioned back in January that which he heard the Tigers love the spin rate on Burrows’ fastball and believe he would transition well in a bullpen role. FanGraphs’ THE BOARD lists spin rates for most of the top pitching prospects in the game, and Burrows is there listed as imparting 2600 rpm of spin to his fastball, an above-average mark.
This move has been projected for a while. His 6’2″ frame has never screamed durability or projection, and while he had remained mostly healthy until 2019, things came crashing down around him as the season wore on. A move to the pen is relatively intuitive considering his International League results.
From a roster construction perspective, too, the move makes sense. The Tigers are finally starting to push less-talented players aside in their minor leagues from the depth they have been developing over the last five seasons. Between Tarik Skubal, Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Alex Faedo, it would be difficult for Burrows to elbow his way into the rotation in Toledo this season.
Unless Burrows completely falls apart in Toledo, look for him to make his big league debut as a bullpen arm in 2020. Unlike Funkhouser, Burrows is likely to be a one-inning pitcher where he will rely on either his curve ball or his change-up in order to get outs. A bullpen piece might feel like a consolation prize when considering his ceiling upon getting drafted, but for a team who has struggled with their bullpen mightily over the past 10+ seasons, a steady hand would be a welcome addition in 2020.