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Bears Look To Ride Jake Burger’s Bat

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Jake Burger (Courtesy of Missouri State)[/caption] After Jake Burger’s freshman season, when he was one of the most productive hitters on a team that bashed its way to a top-10 ranking and a super regional berth, his coaches still had an important question. How could they get him to hit more fly balls? That came up when three of Missouri State’s coaches—head coach Keith Guttin, hitting coach Nate Thompson and graduate manager Matt Lawson—were driving to Nashville last January for the American Baseball Coaches Association Convention. What would happen if all the hard, ringing contact Burger made on ground balls and liners had more air under it? They got their answer in 2016. As a sophomore, Burger hit .349/.420/.689 with 21 home runs, the second most in the country. It was one of the best offensive seasons in school history and earned him a spot on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. As he goes into his junior season, he is now one of the top position player prospects for the 2017 draft. Burger already had shown the tools required for big power numbers. When he was playing at Christian Brothers College High in St. Louis, his exit velocity was clocked at 98 miles per hour off a tee, the second-fastest figure Cadets head coach Mason Horne has seen in his eight years with the program. Guttin’s first time seeing Burger came the summer after his junior year. He didn’t know at the time where Burger would play on defense—mostly because Guttin didn’t see him make many plays—but knew that he would hit, and he did. “We always said, ‘Man, that ball was blistered, it was crushed,’” Thompson said. “But it was a line drive.” Learn From The Best Burger started his freshman season batting in the nine-hole but kept hitting until he found a spot in the middle of the order. He wound up hitting .342/.390/.518 to lead the team in hitting. He only hit four home runs for a 49-12 Bears team. During the following fall, elevation was Burger’s main focus. He followed the cues of Cubs hitting coach John Mallee, who spoke at the 2016 ABCA Convention and has helped players such as Kris Bryant find success. He worked with low tee drills, trying to elevate the ball when it was around his knee. Burger also sought advice from former Missouri State teammate Tate Matheny, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Red Sox in 2015. Matheny told Burger about conversations he had with Andrew Benintendi about his breakout junior year at Arkansas, which came after an offseason where Benintendi put serious focus into hitting more home runs. “I kind of learned from that and kind of took it like, ‘Yeah, it's a skill,’” Burger said. “It doesn't just happen. You've got to work on it if you want to be good at it.” It isn’t a strategy that works for everyone, as Thompson recognizes. For players without exceptional strength, the more traditional strategy of trying to go up the middle might work better. But it paid off hugely for Burger and teammate Spencer Johnson, who led the country with 24 home runs in 2016 and was drafted in the 16th round by the Astros. “You’re supposed to hit the ball where it’s pitched,” Burger said, “and elevate it if you’re a guy that likes to elevate balls.” He hasn’t made any radical adjustments to his swing to accomplish that. One factor Thompson points to is staying deep and athletic in his hips, which can promote a shoulder angle conducive to hitting the ball in the air. Burger also worked on pitch selection, but not in the conventional sense. “(It was) knowing what pitches I can hit out and then what pitches (where) yeah, it’s a strike, but it might be a single through the hole,” he said. Be Yourself Despite the change in approach, Burger’s strikeout rate ticked up only about one percent in 2016 to 13 percent. Still, strikeouts are likely to always be a part of his game and he had the second-most strikeouts on Team USA in 2016. He’s accepted that he will strike out and Thompson thinks that any other approach would just take away from Burger’s strengths. “If there’s been any points where I’ve seen him struggle, it’s when he starts getting a little passive,” Thompson said. “I know some of the scout talk out there on him is, ‘Well, he could get more walks or he needs to see more pitches,’ and that’s not what made him good. What’s made him good is being a very aggressive hitter in the zone, and sometimes he chases.” Another tool influential on Burger’s draft stock will be his defense. He has an above-average arm suited for third base, but still has work to do to prove he can stay at the hot corner. Listed at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he is a fair athlete with modest range. He has been solid defensively at Missouri State, even filling in at shortstop during intrasquad games, but a move to first base is not out of the question in pro ball. In 2017, Jake Burger could either make a lot of money or lose a lot of money. To Guttin, at least, the next step is simple. “Be Jake Burger, because that's good enough,” the Bears’ head coach said. “That's been my message to him . . . There's a lot coming at him, and he has to eliminate those things and be himself. “And if he's Jake Burger, as I told him on more than one occasion, that's plenty good enough.”
Nick Madrigal Danielshirleygetty

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— Ian Frazer is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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