Feature Photo: Ryan Burr, RHP, Diamondbacks
(Pitching for Arizona State University in 2015)
(Ed. Note: Today we are pleased to welcome Jared Wyllys as a new contributor to 2080 Baseball! Jared has spent the last two years writing almost exclusively about the Cubs, but he is looking forward to expanding that reach with minor league coverage at 2080 Baseball, primarily covering Midwest League prospects. Along with his work here, you can find his work at Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville and at Cubs Den.)
Ryan Burr, a right-handed reliever out of Highland Ranch High School in Colorado, and his 2012 teammates are immortalized in a photo that hangs in coach Joe Gleason’s classroom at the school after the team reached a No. 5 ranking in the state and was also ranked in the top 200 in the country that year.
Burr and that team serve as a shining example for the new players who come through Gleason’s doors. Now with Arizona Diamondbacks, who took Burr in the fifth round of the 2015 draft out of Arizona State, the team’s fireballing star still remains invested in his former program.
“He’s the kind of guy you want on your high school team,” Gleason said in a recent telephone interview. “He’s a passionate guy. These days with club baseball, it has become more of an individual game. He didn’t have that.”
In the age when showcases for pitchers who are as young as preteens are not uncommon, Burr was an anomaly then. His fastball was the stuff of Colorado high school baseball legend, and even with that, he stuck with his high school team.
“He was playing with his team at his school,” Gleason said about the 22-year-old Burr. “It’s hard to find that with a kid who throws 96 in high school.”
This is part of why his team picture is so important. The other part is the devotion he has shown to his alma mater since. “He used to take our high school kids on tours of the Arizona State facilities,” Gleason said. He added that Burr has since expressed the same desire to offer tours of the Diamondbacks’ facilities.
His continued impact on the Highlands Ranch baseball program is felt not just in Burr’s personal investment, but in the standard he set. “You try not to talk about the past too much as a coach, but we still point to him and say, ‘That’s the bar.’”
This attitude didn’t go away when Burr attended ASU to play baseball, resisting the allure of immediately turning pro when the Texas Rangers drafted him out of high school (in the 33rd round of the 2012 MLB Draft). ASU’s baseball coach, Tracy Smith, echoes the sentiments of Gleason. “He really bought into the team concept we were trying to sell. He was very good at his individual talent, but he really cared about the team and winning.”
And like Gleason, Burr’s college coach recognized the authority of the fastball in Burr’s repertoire, “Throwing that hard makes it tough on the hitter to react.” But even though Burr’s heater was so mighty, he honed his changeup, slider, and curveball.
“His breaking ball got better at ASU because he continued to work on it,” Smith said. And Burr worked on it in spite of the fact that, while at ASU, his fastball was often enough in his games. “Because he had a great fastball he never had to rely on his secondary pitches,” Smith said.
Burr himself recognizes the importance of a well-rounded approach from the mound. As he shared after a game in June playing for the Kane County Cougars, the Diamondbacks’ Class-A affiliate, he has been working on breaking pitches like his slider and curveball for nearly a decade. At 13 or 14, he was expanding his arsenal, and even when those breaking pitches don’t work for him, he maintains his confidence.
“You know, I’ve given up game-winning bloop hits on off-speed pitches, which doesn’t mean I’ve lost confidence in those offspeed pitches,” Burr said.
Burr’s course to the Diamondbacks’ farm system was charted by that fastball. “It’s always been my fastball. I just feel like I can play my fastball up to anybody I face,” Burr said.
Gleason recalled the difference that fastball made even in high school, “I saw a lot of kids go up to the plate against him and just wait until they had two strikes and just try to battle.”
Burr sat fairly high on the list of top prospects in the Diamondbacks’ system going into his 2016 campaign. He dominated the Short-Season A Northwest League in 2015, striking out 21 in just 14.1 innings. Burr was stingy with the baserunners, too, posting a 0.837 WHIP during that stint before being promoted to the Cougars, who play in the Midwest League. His low WHIP and high strikeout trend continued there, with 0.915 and 12.8 K/9 numbers, respectively.
Coming into 2016, then, Burr was in a favorable spot to keep accelerating through the system and have a realistic shot at contributing in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen by 2018. However, injuries this season that restricted his appearances to mostly May and June slowed his progress significantly.
Upon returning, Burr struggled through just 21 innings with the Cougars. His numbers of the previous season reversed themselves, and his WHIP ballooned to 1.476 while the K/9 rate plummeted to 7.7. His 0.46 ERA of 2015 shot up to 5.14 in 2016.
In the midst of these struggles, Burr recognized some of the cause for this flip in his performance, citing the need to get his body into throwing shape after missing so much time early in the 2016 season.
“I’m really just trying to get my whole body back in throwing shape.” Burr said in late June. “My velocity’s been down from what it’s been in the past, so it just comes with my throwing program and my weight lifting program.” After fighting through the regular season, he threw two innings in the Arizona Fall League, and though he struck out two, he also gave up two hits, walked one, and hit a batter.
But sometimes struggling through a very tough season after so many years of success is exactly what a young player needs. Burr’s 2016 season may have dropped him off of prospect rankings, but he has done important work getting back into shape, and working on maintaining his mechanics.
“My delivery is a little bit different than other people’s, so the big thing is repeating my delivery. And I think that makes it easier to throw consistent strikes. So I’m trying to learn to repeat my delivery with all four of my pitches.”
Like he has since his high school days, Burr remained devoted to doing his job well, even through injury and dips in his performance.
“I try to make every throw on the field perfect, you know – with conviction – to try and better myself,” he said.
Developing pitching in any team’s farm system is a quirky process, but this kind of commitment bodes well for the Diamondbacks’ system because it is not otherwise replete with much talent. If his velocity comes back to the upper 90s level that he has shown since high school, expect Burr to resume his rise through the system.
Both Gleason and Smith recognized his strength as a reliever, and if he can pair his missile of a fastball with a quality secondary pitch – perhaps his hammer curveball, that he developed as an upperclassman in high school, or his slider, that has become a crisper offering since turning pro – he could fill a late-inning role in a major league bullpen.
Burr returned to the curve in 2016, citing a specific instance when he felt like it was his best bet.
“I came into a game with one out in the first inning, and I had to find my way to get my team to the third or fourth inning, so I had to mix in some variance. I went back to my high school days and went back to my curveball to get me through it. And ever since then I started throwing a curveball again.”
An upper-90s fastball that doesn’t have a lot of movement, but does come with a deceptive delivery and a strong curveball? That’s closer potential to dream on.
His past coaches agree. “A guy who has the kind of fire he has as a pitcher, a reliever is the role that seems to fit him,” Gleason said. Smith, his college coach, spoke to Burr’s “intense desire to win.”
Perhaps the kind of fire necessary to getting outs in the tightest of late-inning spots. Burr turns 23 in May, so there’s still time for all of this to come together. The ingredients are there, but he’ll need to prove he can stay healthy for a full season, polish his mechanics, and build back his arm strength to show the Diamondbacks’ front office he is ready to be tested against more advanced bats in the upper minors.