A lot has changed in the last year for Maryland pitcher Sean Burke. Before the 2020 season, Burke wasn’t sure how his college career would go. He had missed his freshman season because of Tommy John surgery and struggled in the fall of 2020.
Things didn’t click again until he took the mound on Feb. 16, 2020 for his first college start against College of Charleston, the final game of the first weekend of the Terps’ 2020 season. He gave up one run and struck out eight Cougars, setting the tone for a dominant stretch during the COVID-shortened season. In four starts, Burke had a 1.99 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 22 innings.
Now, heading into this season, Burke is ready to go, and so is the hype surrounding him. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound righty was named Perfect Game’s Big Ten Preseason Pitcher of the Year, and Baseball America named him the No. 47 prospect for July’s MLB Draft.
“He’s been phenomenal this preseason,” Maryland head coach Rob Vaughn said. “I’m excited to not try to get hits off of him [in scrimmages] anymore. I’m excited to kind of unleash that somewhere else and go to work. But Sean’s been fantastic and we’re looking for a really good year out of him.”
Before Burke came to Maryland, Vaughn kept getting texts about how athletic the pitcher was, though none of it was baseball related. The texts were videos of Burke dunking basketballs when he starred for St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Mass. There was a lot to work with, even if the staff at Maryland had to wait a year to unleash it as Burke recovered from surgery.
But first, Burke had to get his confidence back. That took a while.
“Probably the worst I’ve pitched in my life, the three or four starts in the preseason,” Burke said about his starts leading up to 2020. “Looking back now, obviously at the time you don’t want to struggle, but taking a look back at it a year later it’s something that was necessary, I think, and allowed me to grow a lot in that month.”
To start feeling better on the mound, Burke started to simplify his approach. When he was struggling, he said he was worrying too much about his delivery and whether his fastball and curveball were moving the way he wanted them to. As the season started, he focused on sticking to his strengths, sticking to a routine and having success.
That method worked, as Burke went at least five innings and struck out at least eight batters in each of his four starts. His 35 strikeouts were the most of any freshman pitcher in Division I.
“Once I started becoming more confident and trusting that my pitch plan was going to work and that my stuff was good enough to get guys out,” Burke said, “that’s when I started feeling like myself again and began to enjoy pitching a little bit more.”
With his confidence intact, Burke spent the offseason refining his approach by working on things that will help him succeed not just this year in college but will make him more appealing to MLB scouts. Outside of the throwing program given to him by Maryland pitching coach Corey Muscara, Burke focused on refining his off-speed pitches.
Burke sat 92-95 mph with his fastball last year, according to Baseball America, and Vaughn expects even bigger velocity this year. Vaughn noted his Friday night starter could get a lot of hitters out by using his fastball exclusively. Burke’s been working to improve his curveball and has added two more pitches to his repertoire — a slider that has action similar to a cut fastball, and a changeup. As he’s gotten more comfortable with those pitches, Burke is trying to now work on designing them so they look the same coming out of his hand.
According to John DeRouin, a pitching coordinator who worked with Burke at North East Baseball in Hudson, Mass., in January, the fastball-curveball combination is the most natural to build off. As he gets more comfortable with that combination, as well as the slider and changeup, DeRouin thinks it will allow him to be comfortable on the mound no matter the count.
“From what I’ve heard and some video I’ve seen of him pitch this preseason, he feels like he can kind of pitch backwards now and doesn’t have to focus on being perfect,” DeRouin said. “So I think that’s where having four plus pitches opens up more avenues for him to say, ‘I don’t have to be too perfect here and I can go whatever route I want.’ He can sit on the mound and say, ‘My stuff is really good and I can go 10 different ways with how I’m going to set up and sequence a hitter.'”
With all those tools in his arsenal, Burke is ready to pitch in a game again. His March 5 start against Michigan State in Greenville, S.C., will be the first time he’s taken the mound in a game in 362 days. And he’s ready to see where the season takes him and his team.
“It’s obviously exciting,” Burke said. “We all know we have a talented team, which I think adds to the excitement. Obviously we’re all itching to play a team in a different uniform. We’re looking forward to wrapping up the preseason and getting into it.”
To preview the entire local baseball season, click here.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics