Casey Mize's Sidekick Ready To Take Charge
There are big shoes to fill when following in the footsteps of a giant.
Tanner Burns knows that well.
Burns, the man who was the Robin to Casey Mize’s Batman this year at Auburn certainly felt the expectations of following the act of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft in every start he pitched this season.
“It’s a lot,” Burns said. “I wouldn’t say pressure, but it’s a lot because he goes out and dominates every outing. He racks up 10-15 strikeouts a night, and I wouldn’t say it’s tough following his footsteps, but it is, I guess. It’s in the back of my mind.”
Burns is a 6-foot, 215-pound rising sophomore from Decatur, Alabama. He was considered a top prospect coming out of high school and ranked as the No. 37 player on Baseball America’s top 100 for the 2017 MLB Draft. However, signability concerns caused him to drop to the New York Yankees in the 37th round and he elected to honor his commitment to Auburn instead of joining the pro ranks.
Burns is draft eligible in 2020 and after a stellar freshman season, there is plenty of reason to believe he will be a first round pick if he continues his trajectory. Flashing a plus fastball that sits in the 92-96 mph range to go along with a plus curveball and a changeup that is trending toward average, he has the stuff to pitch in the major leagues.
And he got to learn from the No. 1 pick this season.
Although Burns’ role deviated between starting on Saturdays and Sundays, he was easily the team’s second best starter and was groomed by Mize this season.
“Phenomenal pitcher,” Burns said. “You saw first pick. But he’s also a better coach off the field. We were locker roommates.”
The two even bonded over freshman struggles, something that helped Burns during trying times this season.
“He always said he had struggles his freshman year,” Burns said. “I went through adversity the beginning of freshman year and having him to talk to and the best pitcher in America, it was absolutely a blessing, basically, for me to talk to him.”
It wasn’t just learning to pitch through adversity that Burns learned from Mize. The freshman also struggled with putting away batters this season, and issued 37 walks on the year, a team-high. He walked four batters in two different starts this season and his control made it hard at times for him to pitch deep into games.
“If you look at him, I think he walked eight guys,” Burns said. “The biggest thing is get ahead and stay ahead. Don’t mess with batters, put them away as soon as I can.”
And while Mize actually walked 16 batters, the message is the same — put batters away as quickly as possible.
But even though Mize was the ace of the staff, Burns was the better pitcher in one important category — earned run average. Burns had an earned run average of 3.01, compared to 3.30 from Mize.
In fact, the freshman’s numbers were altogether outstanding. He was 7-4 on the season and pitched 86.2 innings while striking out 77 batters and posting a .225 opponent batting average.
With Mize gone, the keys to the staff will undoubtedly belong to Burns. But he doesn’t see it that way.
“Anything can happen,” Burns said. “I’m just going to keep working hard each day and hopefully I can be the one coming this fall.”
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A later draft date means several more sophomores join an already deep class of 2020 prospects.
For now, Burns is with the Team USA Collegiate National Team pitching on a summer circuit that includes matchups with Chinese Taipei, the 18U National Team Trials and the Coastal Plain Select Team. It’s been an enjoyable experience for him so far.
“I’m playing with the best college guys in the nation,” Burns said. “It doesn’t get better than this. I get to wear the Red, White and Blue USA across my chest. It doesn’t get better than this, playing baseball and playing for your country.”
When Burns steps on campus next year, it will be different, whether or not he admits it. He and his teammates will be determined to avenge an NCAA Super Regional loss to SEC foe Florida.
But it won’t be Mize leading the charge.
It will be Burns.
Because it’s his time now. He’s waited, he’s learned and he’s ready. Ready to be the man, ready to fill those big shoes and ready to be one of the best pitchers in the country.