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Tigers' Beau Burrows works to get back on path to Detroit after injury-riddled season

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

There were thoughts, by no means far-fetched, that Beau Burrows might have been on target in 2019 for a plane ticket with “DTW” as his final stop.

The acronym is short for Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. But another acronym known as ERA killed both DTW and Comerica Park for a 23-year-old, right-handed pitcher who was the Tigers’ first-round pick in 2015.

Tigers pitching prospect Beau Burrows compiled a 5.51 ERA in 15 starts last season at Triple-A Toledo.

Burrows pitched at Triple-A Toledo and in 15 games had a 5.51 ERA. It didn’t pair nicely with another all-caps indicator of how rough things had gone during the past season with the Mud Hens: Burrows’ WHIP was an unsettlingly high 1.53.

A glance at his innings pitched (65.1 at Toledo, 74.1 for the year) would have told a student of Burrows’ time with the Tigers that something physical was amiss for a starter who should have been at least in the region of 134-135 innings, as he was in 2017 and ’18.

And there was the whole issue, in Burrows’ view and in that of his bosses during the past six months: too many breakdowns.

First was biceps tendinitis and shoulder inflammation that hammered him in April and cost him nearly two months. Then, in August during a start at Pawtucket, he, in his words, “popped” an oblique muscle. An already forgettable 2019 pitching calendar was now officially shot.

Burrows spoke about a not-so-ideal season during a Friday phone conversation from his home in Weatherford, Texas, outside of Dallas. Twenty-four hours earlier he had said goodbye to Lakeland, Florida, the Tigers’ minor-league headquarters, where he had spent the last month rehabbing his oblique.

“It was just tough to stay on the field this season,” Burrows said as he got ready for a football weekend he would spend with buddies who, like him, are Cowboy fans even if they aren’t necessarily devotees of his beloved college team, Texas A&M.

“I basically missed half the year with injuries. When I was healthy and pitching, I felt good. And considering it was my first year at Triple A, I learned a lot.

“I thought I handled myself well. The numbers weren’t great. But I got better as a pitcher.”

He’s right about the numbers. The ERA and WHIP were not for a moment anything that would have qualified him for Detroit. It wasn’t so much the 68 hits in 65.1 innings, which was somewhat offset by 61 strikeouts.

The big issue was walks: 32 of them. It computes to 4.41 per nine innings, and that’s nothing front offices appreciate as they ponder who might soon be ready for a big-league rotation.

Burrows said the wild stuff could be boiled down to one issue — that he “wasn’t comfortable” on the mound, primarily due to all the missed time and rhythm that messed up everything.

His fastball velocity was indeed down when he first came back from the biceps/shoulder ills. But, he said, in time it was back to 91, 92, 93, with on occasional scraping of 94, maybe 95, which is where he long has been.

He stuck with an overhand curveball and a solid change-up. In tandem with Toledo pitching coach Juan Nieves, he also began spinning a slider that he intends to polish as a fourth pitch.

His work on the slider, and on a string of 100-plus innings that can put him back on a possible path to Detroit, will resume next spring at Toledo. He is not going to the bullpen. The Tigers will keep him as a starter, even if 40-man roster jam-ups have had some wondering if Burrows might be exposed to Rule 5 poaching. But it’s virtually certain Burrows will be safe.

This rut in Burrows’ road to Comerica comes as both a surprise, and, well, maybe not such a surprise, four years after they grabbed him as the 2015 draft’s 22nd overall pick, fresh from Weatherford High.

His five-season totals from Detroit’s farm are sturdy: 3.61 ERA in 100 games and 468.1 innings, with 426 hits and 433 strikeouts. But his walks, also, have been high —177. And it’s no coincidence that the higher the level in a team’s bushes, the more those walks and those hitters’ counts can lead to a thrashing.

“I think part of it, as prospects move up, the players are better, and so is the competition,” said Dave Littlefield, who oversees the Tigers’ minor-league player training. “He had no real problem this year with his velo. He simply got hit harder and didn’t throw as many strikes.

“He’s got the talent and has the pitches that will allow him to be successful. But a problem I don’t think is appreciated as much is that when you’re hurt during a season as he was, you miss all that time. And then you have to go through what amounts to a mini-spring training.

“Suddenly, you’re not where the other guys are. You don’t transition and perform at the same level. I’ve seen it so many times through the years.”

There might also have been a young man’s psyche at work, earning hard lessons. A couple of pitches miss, and now it’s 2-and-0 or 3-and-1. And the next fastball can suddenly be headed on a long, high arc over downtown Toledo.

After one of those detonations, a pitcher can begin shying away from the strike zone’s heart, maybe even subconsciously. And that can put opposing hitters in charge rather than a 6-foot-2, 215-pound Texan.

Burrows isn’t biting there. He says he pitches plenty aggressively and that a healthy body will re-shape his 2020 season and perhaps give the Tigers something to think about as they continue to remodel a roster and rotation.

 That would explain why he felt so good boarding his plane to Dallas on Thursday. It was because Burrows truly felt good, and strong, following his rehab and sweat sessions at the Tigers’ complex in Lakeland.

There will be no breaks from rigors designed to make him a steady starter who needs 20-25 starts and plenty of innings in 2020. With that in mind, Burrows was set to hit the gym beginning this week for extended hours and a surplus of sweat. 

“It was kind of an eye-opener this year, knowing more what I need to do in the future to keep this body healthy for a whole season,” Burrows said. “I guess you could say the last year was kind of a curse and a blessing. Now I know a little more about how to take care of myself — just getting more mobility, hitting those slow muscles, and that soft tissue and everything.”

And then, maybe, next season will make more sense. A first-round draft pick might resume resembling a guy the Tigers had thought, by now, could be tapping at Comerica Park’s clubhouse door.

That’s not happening soon. But the Tigers don’t mind waiting if some earlier visions are fulfilled.

“I know he’s disappointed,” Littlefield said. “He just needs to stay healthy. He’s one of our key guys. He’s had success in the past.”

There’s a common thought that 20/20 vision is ideal. In the case of Burrows, 2020 would be viewed as an ideal year to get back on a big-league road that once seemed all but sure.

Freelance writer Lynn Henning is a former Detroit News reporter.