VIERA, Fla. — Last year, Sean Burnett turned in one of the most impressive spring training stat lines you’ll see. The left-hander pitched in 10 games, allowed just five hits and a walk and never gave up a run in 9 1/3 innings of work. He fielded questions about being the Nationals’ closer and got three saves in the Nationals’ first 10 games.
The rest of the season Burnett spent trying to figure out what was preventing him from achieving that same success. Why was his curveball hanging at the wrong time? Why wasn’t he having the same effectiveness he’d had in the past — against right-handers and left-handers? He made a few changes. He switched sides of the pitching rubber and this offseason went back to the windup delivery.
Wednesday he offered up another theory: “I struggled quite a bit last spring training. I wasn’t confident going into the season.”
Given the numbers it was a jarring thing to hear Burnett say. Struggled? Spring training? Sure didn’t seem that way.
But Burnett realized that it wasn’t about the results. Those were good. His pitches simply weren’t where they should have been when the season opened because of those results. Effectiveness, in a way, wasn’t his friend.
“Spring training numbers are useless, to tell you the truth,” he said. “My innings were so quick last year – I threw sinkers and got a couple quick groundballs and got out of there – that I didn’t really get to work on pitches. It’s kind of my fault. I didn’t use spring training the proper way, maybe.
“This year, I’m going to try to throw more breaking balls for strikes and try to get my work in. If it is giving up runs or throwing some extra pitches, not every inning needs to be six pitches. Hopefully I can work on that and get the breaking ball going.”
It’s not a unique stance. It doesn’t happen all the time, but there are relievers who’ll use a spring training outing in an unconventional way. If the fastball needs work, they’ll throw just fastballs the entire outing. If it’s the sinker, or the slider, or the curveball, they’ll go heavy on those pitches and worry about the results later. Burnett’s never done that — and doesn’t think he’ll need to this year — but the general idea is one that he’s open to.
“Last year, I’d go out there and throw six pitches and get three outs, it’s great looking but I didn’t get any work out of it. That was the crucial thing when the season started. The breaking ball wasn’t where it needed to be. The changeup was terrible. It wasn’t ready for the season.”
It’s an interesting theory and one that seems to have helped Burnett early this season. In live batting practice on Wednesday he was impressive, sawing off bats left and right — including that of Nationals slugger Michael Morse — and drew some positive comments from around the cage.
The big takeaway, he said, was movement. In the hot, humid Florida air, Burnett — a Florida native — feels at home. He’s got good movement on his breaking ball, he’s able to see how different grips affect the way it spins and he felt Wednesday that he was ahead of the game this year.
“I need movement,” he said. “Last year at times, I think stuff flattened out. As long as I’ve been pitching, that’s the key to my sinker, getting it off the end of the bat. I threw a couple good changeups (Wednesday). Just to see the contact and not getting the barrel to it, where they think it is and where the ball really ends up, is crucial for me.”