PHOENIX – In his three seasons pitching for the Arizona State Sun Devils, Ryan Burr has become a college baseball backend bonanza. An over-powering starter during his playing days at Highlands Ranch (Colo.) High School, Burr was thrust into the closer’s role during his freshman season in Tempe and has developed into one of the best late-inning men in the country.
“I really didn’t even have a chance to transition; I was just kind of thrown out there as a freshman,” Burr told PG this past weekend after the Sun Devils had posted a walk-off win against Pac-12 rival Stanford at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, a game in which he didn’t pitch.
“It kind of stuck with me and I started to love it, and I still love it now,” he said, standing right outside a raucous Sun Devils clubhouse. “I’d love a chance to start in the future again if that’s possible, but I feel comfortable in the backend. I feed off the pressure, and it’s fun being out there with the game on the line.”
Burr, a 6-foot-4, 224-pound junior right-hander, is not only having fun, he’s enjoying unparalleled success. He is 4-0 with an NCAA Division I-high 10 saves and a 0.46 ERA for the No. 9-ranked Sun Devils, who improved to 18-7 overall and 7-2 in the Pac-12 after their three-game sweep of the Cardinal over the weekend. He has allowed one earned run on 14 hits in 19 2/3 innings of work, striking out 38 and walking nine.
He has pitched in 77 games in his 2½ seasons at ASU – making three starts last season – and is 11-5 with 34 saves and a 2.31 ERA in 109 innings. He had 12 saves in each of his first two seasons and his 34 career saves has obliterated the school record of 25 set by Doug Nurnberg from 1965-67. That had been ASU’s longest standing individual career record.
Burr is a two-time All-Pac 12 honoree and joined former Sun Devil Dustin Pedroia of the Boston Red Sox as the only ASU players to be members of the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team in consecutive seasons.
Brandon Higelin is in his first season as the Sun Devils’ pitching coach, arriving here from Indiana with ASU first-year head coach Tracy Smith. Higelin coached with Smith at Indiana for only one season, but last year’s Hoosiers’ staff compiled a 2.33 team ERA – seventh lowest in the nation – under his guidance. He knows young pitchers well, and he certainly appreciates having Burr as an option in the late innings.
“He brings the mentality that when the game gets into the eighth or ninth inning, he wants the ball and he wants to win,” Higelin told PG. “When you have that desire and you want to win, it means a lot to everybody to know that he wants the ball, and it feels good when you get him in the ballgame.
“(Burr) works extremely hard and he’s learning how to lead,” he continued. “Being as dominant has he is, it definitely helps having a bulldog like that in the backend.”
That “bulldog” came out of Highlands Ranch as the No. 59-ranked national prospect in the class of 2012 after participating in eight Perfect Game events from 2009-11.
He was at all the most heavily scouted attractions, including two appearances at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. (2010-11) with the Midland Redskins. He was also at the 2011 PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., and the 2011 PG All-American Classic in San Diego.
“Those events were just awesome,” Burr said. “It was a chance for me – being from a cold-weather state, I didn’t really get a chance to see competition like that very often – to be able to go out and perform well at those kind of things and it really gave me confidence.
"Especially seeing all the other guys from across the country that were ranked high, and going to all these places across the country, I actually made a lot of friendships from that,” he continued. “I have a lot of friends in pro-ball now who took a different route than I did, but the Perfect Game All-American game was one of the (most fun) times I’ve had playing baseball.”
There were 22 players that were either first-round or first-round compensation picks in the 2012 MLB amateur draft that shared City of Palms Park in Fort Myers with Burr at the 2011 PG National Showcase, including top minor league prospects Carlos Correa (Astros) and Addison Russell (Cubs). Thirteen of those first-rounders followed him to Petco Park in San Diego for the PG All-American Classic.
The Texas Rangers selected Burr in the 33rd round of the 2012 MLB amateur draft – a much lower round than he anticipated – so he didn’t have to think twice about coming to Tempe. And, most importantly, there has never been one minute of second-guessing.
“This has been a better experience than I could have ever asked for,” he said. “I was a little tentative coming to college, but I wouldn’t give this back for anything. Even the off-the-field stuff with the friendships I’ve made with the players and other people on campus, it’s been perfect for me.”
When Burr was throwing in high school and at Perfect Game events in 2011 his fastball was consistently topping out at 93 mph, at least that’s exactly what the gun read at both the PG National Showcase and the PG All-American Classic. Three years later that fastball has touched 98 mph and he consistently sits 94 to 96 mph during most of his outings.
“The only thing that we’ve really worked on with him a lot, other than some real tiny mechanical things, is just getting him to understand himself … and trying to get him in the strike zone more,” Higelin said. “He’s been very coachable and we haven’t done a lot other than trying to get him to understand himself … and that’s made him even more dominant.”
Burr said his time in Tempe has flown by, and that he was actually looking at some old film when he was pitching in high school and couldn’t believe that was four or five years ago.
“With the strides that I’ve made, I just have to give credit to all the coaches that I’ve had and the player mentors that I’ve had,” he said. “I look like a totally different pitcher and I feel like a totally different pitcher. Before I felt like I was just a thrower and at times I am still just a thrower, I feel like, so there’s always room to improve. By coming to Arizona State with all the coaching I’ve had, it’s helped me become more of a solidified pitcher.”
Coach Smith’s arrival in the desert has seemed to reinvigorate the ASU program and the Sun Devils are certainly finding ways to win. Their 7-6 triumph over Stanford last Friday night came courtesy of a three-run bottom of the ninth inning, their fourth walk-off victory of the season; they have won five games where they have trailed after six innings, which goes a long ways toward explaining Burr’s 4-0 mark.
“With this team it seems like every night, regardless of what the circumstances are, we just come out and we find a way to win,” he said. “That’s a characteristic of a really good team and we’re just going to keep riding that out – it makes things exciting but a win’s a win.”
ASU advanced to the NCAA postseason in four of the last five seasons when Tim Esmay was the head coach – it was banned from the postseason in 2012 because of NCAA infractions dating to 2007 – and even went to the College World Series in 2010, Esmay’s first season in Tempe. But he was forced out after last season’s disappointing 33-24 campaign and replaced by Smith, a two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year at Indiana who had turned the Hoosiers into a consistent winner.
Burr, who will celebrate his 21st birthday in late May, feels like he has benefited from having two pitching coaches in his three years at ASU and said he has learned a lot from both; he will try to use those lessons wisely. He has a lot to contemplate in the coming months, with the Sun Devils looking to make a run back to Omaha and the College World Series and the MLB First-Year Player Draft scheduled for June 8-10.
Having unselfishly taken over the closer’s role from the outset of his college career could hurt Burr’s draft standing, but he is projected to go in the first two or three rounds. Perfect Game ranked him as the No. 73 overall (college, junior college and high school) draft prospect before the end of the 2014 fall season and he is ranked the No. 35 college junior in the draft. It really is a lot to contemplate.
“To sit here and tell you I haven’t thought about (the draft) would be a lie; obviously it creeps into your mind,” Burr said. “But the main focus for me right now is getting to Omaha; that was my goal when I came to school. I didn’t want to come here just to improve my draft stock or anything like that.
“I wanted to come here and help bring that national championship back to Tempe and I think this team actually has a shot. With this coaching staff behind us, the sky’s the limit.”