Zack Burdi hits 102 in High A debut, with video and interview

Zack Burdi arrived in Winston-Salem and made his full-season league debut for the Dash on Friday night. I was there to watch, got some video, and had the opportunity to interview him before the game. So this article will be a mix of all that, with a brief background first, to provide a mini-profile of Burdi as a professional pitcher.

This flame-throwing right-hander was selected by the White Sox as the 26th overall pick in the 2016 Draft just a few weeks ago. He was seen by pundits as a likely fast-riser in a relief role, and so far that’s been playing out. Pitchers who can hit triple digits, with a wicked breaking pitch to boot, don’t grow on trees, and that velocity could play at any level. Here’s what he had to say when asked about the possibility of reaching the majors in his draft year, a la Chris Sale

No, they haven’t really put that on me, and haven’t heard that from anyone in the organization. But it’s definitely out there, people are whispering about it, I see people talking about it. But nothing from the front office.

After signing (for $2,128,500, which is slot value), he started on what one might call the Fulmer path – opening with a single-outing tune-up in the Arizona League before skipping Low-A to go straight to High-A. Our own Kim Contreras caught that warm-up outing a few days ago and wrote this brief report about how he looked there, including embedded video, and you should definitely read that too.

Upon arriving at BB&T Ballpark to join the team, he did the rounds interviewing with myself, as well as some local TV news crews. Then, after starter Spencer Adams booked seven solid innings, Zack warmed up and came out for the 8th inning, and got his first look from the mound at Carolina League hitters.

Against his first batter of the Wilmington Blue Rocks (a Royals affiliate), Burdi’s sequence went: FB 98, FB 101, CH 90, FB 100 that resulted in a medium-deep fly-out to right field. He then induced an infield pop-out on the first pitch against his second batter, on another fastball around 100.

Then with two outs, he did this (velocity mentioned for each pitch in the audio in this video):

That’s 101, 102, 101 (same speeds registered on two radar guns – those numbers are real). Somehow on that last pitch, Samir Duenez managed to put a grounder just far enough away from the shortstop to manage an infield single on that 101 mph laser. Also worth noting, a very slick play from defensive wizard Cleuluis Rondon almost nailed the runner anyway, which would have ended the inning.

Brandon Downes then saw a pitch he could actually turn on, and almost hit it out of the park, smacking a double high off the wall in left field on a 90 mph change-up or hanging slider (when you’re geared for 100+, you can pull 90 pretty easily). In the final at-bat of the inning, Austin Bailey hit another ground ball up the middle this one escaping Rondon’s reach into center field for a base hit – also against a change-up, this one at 91. But a strong throw home from Hunter Jones nailed the runner trying to score from second, allowing Burdi to get out of the inning. In total, he allowed 3 hits, one run, and threw 18 pitches (11 for strikes).

Watching Zack pitch, a few things stand out:

  • He starts with his front foot nearly on the rubber in front of (and in line with) his back foot, with his back turned nearly to the catcher. Bears fans may find this familiar, eliciting memories of placekicker Paul Edinger. One might consider that this gets his trunk setup in early, which perhaps could help alleviate some stress. But it’s unusual to be sure.
  • His initial kick and arm draw-back are not violent, in fact it looks almost slow in comparison to what happens next.
  • When he does start his arm forward and trunk flexion, the acceleration is impressive, almost frightening.
  • His arm slot is of a low 3/4 variety, almost side-arm. This does put more strain on the elbow, but again the way he uses his trunk is unusual enough that it’s hard to say how much of a problem that may or may not be.
  • He finishes falling off to the first base side. This is not surprising given the arm angle and rapid body rotation, but it may indicate a lack of balance on delivery that could speak to future problems improving command.
  • Somehow, despite the oddities and the rapid acceleration, taken as a whole form it’s pretty smooth. No particular hitches or body jerks.

In terms of results, it’s clear that he doesn’t have particularly good command of any of his pitches yet. He only threw a true breaking pitch once, so I just can’t comment much on that yet. His fastball had (oodles of) velocity, and some impressive arm-side run. His change-up had some drop to it, though not consistently, and he wasn’t locating it particularly well. He appears able to throw strikes at a reasonable rate, but that’s not the same as command, and he doesn’t seem like a surgeon out there at this point in his career. Speaking of which, when I asked Zack what he’s focused on right now development-wise, he had this to say:

Just good command, having good control of the game. Just slowing the game down. It’s a different speed than college, obviously, all the guys are top caliber dudes. So just getting a grip on that, taking my game out there having it work.

Consistency and command, driven from balance and body control, will be a key challenge for Burdi. There are parallels here with Carson Fulmer, and Carlos Rodon, among other recent draft picks for the White Sox. He’s probably an ideal project for this club though, as they do excel as an organization at dealing with these sorts of issues (see Sale, Chris).

One last note – we’ve been asked on social media if he’s seen purely as a reliever, or a potential future starter. When I broached that topic, this was how Burdi responded:

Yeah, we talked about it when I got drafted. They said that they see me as a reliever, and that there is a possibility I’m going to start. But for now, at least for this season, I’m going to be a reliever. Then going into the spring next year they can re-evaluate that if they want to. But they drafted me as a reliever, and that’s what I’m going to be for right now.

Will he be in the majors this year? How much value will he bring? The answers to those questions will likely be found in how effective he is at improving his balance and control, so that he can arrive at the entrance to the maze leading to true command.

***There is more from my interview with Burdi, which I’ll include with the other Dash interviews when that article is published***

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