Self-Made Star Alec Burleson Does it All For East Carolina
East Carolina’s Alec Burleson is a player cut from a cloth familiar to anyone who grew up playing baseball. He’s the guy from the rival high school who seemed to pick the team up and put it on his back every time you played against him.
He’s the team’s best hitter and its best pitcher, and based on team need, he’s liable at various points of the season to start games on the mound or come in late to close them out. He’s listed on the roster as a first baseman, but he also sees plenty of time in the outfield.
When he pitches, he doesn’t look like a pitcher, because most pitchers don’t take the mound with a dirty uniform from having run the bases or from having played a position in the field.
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“Being able to help the team win on both sides of the ball, unlike most college baseball players only being able to do it on one side, it’s definitely something that I take advantage of,” Burleson said. “Days I’m not hitting too well I can still help us win on the mound. I can take pride in that because I know a lot of people can’t do it at a high level and I know a lot of guys depend on me to do both at a high level.”
Two-way players in college baseball aren’t unique, but what makes Burleson stand out is the kind of two-way player he is.
He’s not clearly more effective at one or the other. You could rightfully argue that he’s most valuable as a starting pitcher simply because frontline starting pitchers are of great value in college baseball, but the lefthanded hitting Burleson hit .370/.399/.573 a season ago. And as far as the draft goes, he’s considered more of a prospect with the bat.
He also plays both ways in the same game with regularity. Many two-way players who start games as part of the weekend rotation don’t hit on the days they pitch, and often, the day they pitch is dictated by what will keep them freshest for whichever aspect of their game is most important to the team.
But Burleson is in the lineup every single day, whether he starts the game at DH, at first base, in the outfield or on the mound.
“Coming into it, I just thought it was too much,” Burleson said. “I didn’t really know how to handle it, but once I finally matured a little bit and I started to take pride in not only doing both, but preparing to do both, doing all the little things that it takes to do both at a high level, that’s when I really saw myself start to excel at both.”
Burleson makes it all look fairly easy. He can win a game with his bat, with his arm or even step in and play a position he’s never played before if called upon.
In the 2018 Greenville Regional final, a balky back forced regular left fielder Bryant Packard to move to DH. Burleson, who had only played first base throughout the season and had yet to take a single fly ball in the outfield, was the guy who stepped in to fill the void. With an uncanny knack for the game that has always far outpaced his physical tools, that’s the type of thing Burleson can do.
“I called him into my office and said ‘Hey Burly, can you play left field?’” coach Cliff Godwin said. “Burly being Burly goes ‘Yeah, no problem, I just got to catch a fly ball and throw it in. Yeah, we’re good.’
“In an elimination game, you put a guy out there, most kids would have been freaking out. He was just like ‘Okay.’”
But as easy as he makes it look, Burleson is quick to admit that it’s anything but. East Carolina is getting the benefit of two players in one, but that means that his recovery and his preparation are roughly the same as what would be required of two players.
“The preparation is doubled,” Burleson said. “I’m at the field longer, at the field earlier, and then staying after longer to get in all the work I need to get in.”
Then there’s the mental side of it. We’ve often heard about the importance of players not taking errors they made in the field to the batter’s box with them or dwelling on poor at-bats while they’re standing out at their position, and that seems difficult enough.
Now imagine popping up on the first pitch of your at-bat and then having to re-focus, head to the mound and get outs moments later.
“That was the challenge for me, definitely my freshman year and even part of my sophomore year last year, just being able to not carry over what happens on one side of the ball to the other side so it doesn’t affect what I do on the other side of it,” Burleson said.
The thing about it is that it’s a burden Burleson not only wants and embraces, but sought out when he was getting ready to play college baseball.
“That was a big thing for me in the recruiting process throughout high school, because I always wanted to do both,” he said. “I wanted to do both for as long as I could and that was a big point for me to find a school that would give me a fair opportunity to do both. And that’s really all I was going to ask for. I couldn’t ask for them to just let me do both, it’s ‘give me an opportunity to do both.’ That’s a big reason why I came to East Carolina. Just because I felt like Coach Godwin was going to give me that opportunity and he had some proof in his prior lineup that he had some two-way guys.”
The match between Burleson and Godwin was a good one in that regard. In 2015, for example, Reid Love went from being just a pitcher who happened to hit a little bit to a true two-way star in Godwin’s first season at ECU.
And in 2020, Burleson was one of five players, along with infielder/right-handed pitchers Ryder Giles, Skylar Brooks and Zach Agnos, and lefthander Carson Whisenhunt, who did both.
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Godwin also sees a lot of himself in Burleson and thinks that his current star player would have fit right in on the 2001 PIrates team, on which the skipper played. Considering that was the first ECU team to advance out of the regional round under Keith LeClair, arguably the most important team in program history, that’s high praise.
“I say this as a credit to him, not a credit to me,” Godwin said. “I’m a really competitive person and he has more of my mindset than probably anybody I’ve ever coached, whether it was at Vanderbilt, UNCW, Notre Dame, LSU, Ole Miss or UCF. The kid is a throwback. I tell my teammates that he could have played with us back in ‘01, and that was a really competitive group playing for Coach LeClair and he would have fit right in with that group.”
Burleson will make for an interesting draft case this year. His lack of a standout tool keeps him from being an elite prospect, and a shortened draft, whether it’s five rounds, ten rounds, or something in between, threatens to squeeze him out of being selected.
With that being said, production and lengthy track records matter and Burleson has checked those boxes both at ECU and last summer for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. And perhaps being a proven commodity at a high-level program like ECU ends up helping him in a year when amateur scouts got very abbreviated looks, or no looks at all, at huge swaths of the draft-eligible population.
But perhaps most importantly, he has also made a career out of getting better and proving people wrong, and that bodes well for his success at the professional level, no matter when that opportunity comes.
“I think he will grow strength-wise, continue to develop his strength, his athleticism, and the thing that he’s done a really good job (of) since he’s been here is the jump that he made athletically from his freshman year to his sophomore year was awesome,” Godwin said.
Consider that when Godwin first began scouting Burleson, he was a lightly-recruited soft-tossing lefty whose fastball sat in the low 80s and a hitter without much power to speak of, but on the recommendation of his travel ball coach Don Hutchins, who said Burleson was the best hitter he’d ever had, Godwin and his staff continued to follow him.
Now, he’s been one of the most productive players in college baseball the last three years, and Godwin’s faith in that recommendation has paid huge dividends.
Burleson is a baseball player’s baseball player, full of edge and energy and a will to compete. Almost, you might say, like those high school players you not-so-fondly remember competing against.