Baseball is a game of routine and repetition, and perhaps no one knows that better than Jake Burger. Certainly no one had his routine disrupted more than Burger for a brutal and painful stretch early in his professional career.
Burger returned to his college surroundings last weekend for Missouri State’s annual First Pitch fundraiser and talked about how his routine is solidly on track, perhaps more than it’s been since he was the 11th overall selection of the 2017 Major League Baseball draft by the Chicago White Sox.
As he leaves for spring training in Arizona later this week, Burger is coming off two mostly healthy seasons. The power-hitting third baseman seems to have put questions about his health in the rearview mirror after a pair of Achilles tendon ruptures sidelined him in 2018 and 2019 before COVID-19 wiped out his 2020 minor-league season.
“You know, after the journey I’ve been on, it feels pretty good,” Burger said of his outlook for 2023. “It feels as though I’m only growing and keep developing and keep learning the game. It’s been an incredible two seasons and hopefully, it continues.”
‘Wherever they need me, that’s where I’ll play’
The former college All-American, who hit 47 home runs from 2015-17 in helping the Bears win two NCAA Tournament regionals, has big-league experience on his side as spring training opens. He’s appeared in 66 games for the White Sox over the last two seasons, hitting .252 with nine home runs and 29 RBIs while splitting time between Chicago and Triple-A Charlotte.
This year, he’s eager to win an opening-day roster spot with the White Sox as either a third baseman, second baseman or designated hitter. It’s something of a fresh start for Burger, and the White Sox in general, as Pedro Grifol has replaced Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa as White Sox manager.
“We’ll see,” Burger said of his anticipated role for a team that had high expectations before fizzling to an 81-81 record and distant second-place American League Central Division finish in 2022. “Obviously last year didn’t go the way we wanted it to. I think we’re all even more hungry this year to prove everybody wrong about us.
“Like I always say, wherever they need me, that’s where I’ll play.”
Adjusting to changes in pitching
Burger said the offensive approach to baseball, as a whole, changed during his three years away. Power pitching now is the preferred mode on the mound just as exit velocity and power hitting have taken hold in the batter’s box.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a hitter like Burger, who is capable of hitting for power to all fields.
“There was a lot of sinker, slider type of stuff,” Burger said of the pre-injury phase of his career. “Once I got back in, a lot of high fastballs and curveballs. I had to evolve in that way as a hitter.
“For me, it’s all about pitch selection and honing that in. That’s what I’ve been working on this offseason. I like this a little better than the sinker-slider, that’s for sure.”
Routine is key to baseball success
Burger said he tells young players at Missouri State that settling into a routine — whether it’s with regular offseason workouts, fielding ground balls or taking swings in the batting cage — is key to succeeding in a tough game.
“When I was here at Missouri State, coach (Keith) Guttin and coach (Nate) Thompson at the time really preached ‘stick to a routine and you’re going to go a long way.’ Now Joey Hawkins being here (as Guttin’s assistant) helps that as well. He preaches you have to have a routine to stick with every day.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re at, as long as you play the game hard and play it the right way, you’re going to have an opportunity.”
Burger gets motivation from playing for family
Burger also is adapting to a new off-the-field routine. He became a dad for the first time on Nov. 28 when wife Ashlyn gave birth to son Brooks.
“It’s been interesting,” Burger said with a smile. “You have to have a routine and being in the baseball world kind of helps with that.”
“It’s incredible,” he added of what parenthood means to him. “Not only am I playing for myself, I’m playing for my family now and that adds a whole level of motivation that I never had before.”
Proud to represent Missouri State
As his professional career continues, Burger said he is proud to represent Missouri State to his White Sox teammates. Returning to Hammons Field as the featured speaker at First Pitch was a way to help continue the legacy of Bears baseball.
“I’ll namedrop Ryan Howard and Brad Ziegler and all the guys to my current teammates,” Burger said of Missouri State alums before him to enjoy big-league success. “That’s the program that ‘G’ (Guttin) has built. It’s successful, not only at the college level but at the pro level. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, in a way, with what ‘G’ has built here.
“I remember specifically Ryan Howard coming back during my time. This guy won Rookie of the Year, won a World Series and he’s coming back. We always preach family here and I think that’s true.”
Just like Howard and Ziegler once inspired Burger’s generation of Bears, he’s hoping to do the same with a 2023 Missouri State team with hopes of making a return trip to the NCAA tourney.
“I just say, ‘Have fun with it. You’re going to have these memories for the rest of your life,’” Burger said. “There’s still times where I’ll be texting guys I played with saying ‘remember this story?’ So, savor it, while knowing you have to put in the work.”