As a prep player at Ooltewah High School in Tennessee, Kyler Burke was a star two-way player. He was ready to go to Vanderbilt as an outfielder/pitcher when the San Diego Padres made him a supplemental first round pick in 2006 and lured him away from college life and the mound. Most teams seemed to prefer him as a pitcher but the Padres liked his athleticism and power potential in the outfield.
A year after he was drafted, the Padres dealt him to the Cubs for catcher Michael Barrett. He continued to struggle as a hitter, particularly when adjusting to each new level. He hit .209 in his first season in rookie ball, .211 in his first season in Short-Season A ball and then .206 in his first go round at Class A Peoria.
And then in 2009, Burke had an apparent breakthrough season. He developed a patient approach at the plate and the kind of power both the Padres and Cubs had expected of him. Overall he hit .303/.404/.505, a line that included 78 walks, 43 doubles, and 15 HRs. He also stole 14 bases and was considered a good defensive outfielder with the best arm in the organization. He was named the Cubs 11th best prospect after that season by Baseball America.
Then 2010 came along with a promotion, and once again Burke struggled. He hit .212/.279/.328. His HRs, SBs, and walk rate dropped in half. The one thing that didn’t go south was that lightning bolt of a left arm. So after that season, Farm Director Oneri Fleita approached him with an idea.
Go back to the mound.
You see, Burke didn’t just have a strong arm. It was accurate. In fact, his throwing accuracy ranked 80 out of 80 on the scouting scale. Is it possible he could take that velocity and accuracy to the mound? The Cubs seemed to think it was worth a shot. They’d had success with the conversion in the past, most recently with current pitchers Carlos Marmol, Rafael Dolis, and Randy Wells. But Burke needed some time to think about it.
“It almost got to be his idea. You can’t get in with one foot in and one foot out”, said Fleita. Burke didn’t just agree. He bought in to the idea 100%.
And now, Burke is again an intriguing talent with a realistic shot of reaching the big leagues.
On the mound, he already shows good command. It’s not surprising considering the accuracy he showed from the outfield. He’s also an extremely athletic player, one of the best all-around athletes in the Cubs system, so repeating his delivery came more naturally to him than it has with other pitchers. He walked a respectable 3.68 batters in his first year of pitching and this year his control has been getting better, cutting it nearly in half to 1.87.
But don’t get the idea that he’s some kind of finesse arm who hits his spots. In a system loaded with smoke and mirrors lefties, Burke has a bit more smoke. I was told by one source that he has hit 94 mph this season and has what is considered to be an above average curveball. I later had the chance to speak with Fleita and he told me he’s usually at 88-92 mph. When I got the chance to see Burke pitch in person, he did indeed throw 88-92, although he did hit 92 in the 7th inning. Being able to sustain peak velocity into the late innings bodes well for Burke’s chances to remain a starter.
Burke has struck out 8.2 batters per 9 innings in his (second) career so far. This season he has a 2.41 ERA (2.87 FIP). His strikeout rate has dropped to 6.42 this year which is a reflection of him starting and facing more advanced hitters. Despite the lower K rate, Burke’s improved control has helped him improve his K/BB ratio. It has risen from 2.61 to 3.43 over the past year.
There are also some nice intangibles beyond the numbers. When I got the chance to see Burke personally, I noted that he had a good presence on the mound and has a fluid, easily repeatable delivery. He also fields his position well.
“It’s gone real smooth so far,” said Burke. “ Things are working out pretty good and I’m pretty excited about it.”
I’d venture a guess that Fleita and the Cubs front office is pretty excited too.
This article has been updated and republished from an article I wrote for miCubs.com