GSA Spotlight: Wake Forest's Chase Burns

Photo: Aaron Fitt

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — For three years, Wake Forest coaches and fans had the privilege of watching Rhett Lowder, the greatest pitcher in program history, turn in one masterpiece after another, capped by an all-time pitching duel against LSU’s Paul Skenes in the College World Series last year. Wake’s pitching staff last year was the best in the nation, with three All-Americans in the weekend rotation, and that group did a lot of special things.

But Chase Burns’ performance Saturday night against Duke — a 14-strikeout tour de force against a Blue Devils team that led the nation in OPS and home runs — deserves a place right up there alongside any of the other displays of pitching greatness we’ve seen from the Demon Deacons.

“I don’t know how you can throw better than he did tonight,” Wake coach Tom Walter said after the game. “I was so impressed with him, and so proud of the effort for him. He was throwing three pitches for strikes, pounding his pitches in there, really good. … So I don’t know what else to say — that’s as good of an outing, when we needed it, as I’ve ever seen. That was certainly Paul Skenes and Rhett Lowder-esque. Really, really special.”

Stylistically, Burns is closer to Skenes than Lowder. Like Skenes, a Golden Spikes Award finalist, Burns has the ability to simply overpower hitters with his elite fastball, which 97-99 mph for six innings Saturday night, bumping triple digits a few times and topping out at 101 mph on his 98th and penultimate pitch of the game. At his best, Skenes sat a couple ticks higher, often living comfortably at 100-101 deep into games, but Burns’ heater plays even above its velocity thanks to its truly exceptional riding life, with spin rates in the 2600-2800 rpm range and between 21 and 24 inches of induced vertical break, making the pitch explode through the top of the zone. Burns has always thrown hard, but his fastball has taken a big step forward this year with the assistance of Wake pitching coach Corey Muscara and the Deacs’ analytics team. He is throwing the pitch slightly more often (57% of the team compared with 52% last year at Tennessee), and it is generating dramatically more swing-and-miss (46% whiff rate compared with 24% last year).

“I saw glimpses of it last year where it had some ride,” Burns said. “Coming here, they kind of told me that that’s how my fastball’s gonna play. Staying direct and directional to a straight line, it’s kind of helped me up that fastball with some ride and it’s helped me out a lot.”

Some mechanical tweaks have helped Burns unlock the full explosive potential of his fastball, while simultaneously helping him improve his command. Wake Forest’s detailed development plan for Burns played a vital role in bringing him to Winston-Salem, after he became one of the highest-profile players to enter the transfer portal since the portal’s inception. Burns was already a superstar at Tennessee, where he won D1Baseball’s national Freshman of the Year award in 2022, then faltered a bit in a starting role as a sophomore but still helped lead the Volunteers to Omaha as an overpowering bullpen stopper. But Burns has been able to take the next step in his development at Wake Forest, where the first step last fall was to make changes to his mechanics.

“He was a strike thrower at Tennessee, he threw strikes, but his delivery wasn’t efficient to what he was doing,” Muscara explained. “If you were to break a delivery down, everything’s about momentum and everything’s about plane rotation. So his lead arm didn’t match his throwing arm, which didn’t match his hips, which stride-blocked him. So it created an inefficient fastball. So the first thing we had to do, because he’s an unbelievable athlete, is we had to get all of his direction and energy to match. So if everything matches, then you’re behind the ball better and it carries better. And naturally, once you get him to understand how to do that, he has more margin for error, he doesn’t have to throw to quadrants anymore, he can just throw to white, because average fastball is 97 with 21 [inches of] carry. And he has a wipeout slider and the curveball’s not bad, he actually has a serviceable changeup. So you have to cheat to the fastball, it’s really hard to get on time with, but he’s got more weapons.”

Burns also credited his mechanical adjustments with helping him refine his command, which was eye-opening Saturday against Duke, when he not only located the fastball to both sides of the plate but also landed his signature devastating slider for a strike whenever he wanted, or used it to expand the zone and get chases. A double-plus pitch at 86-90 mph with tight spin into the 3000 rpm range, Burns’ slider served as the putaway pitch on nine of his 14 strikeouts Saturday, and it has generated a 58% whiff rate and a 40% chase rate on the season, according to Synergy. For the sake of comparison, Skenes’ slider last year had a 62% whiff rate and a 32% chase rate — but Burns’ fastball right now is missing considerably more bats (46%) than Skenes’ fastball did last year (30%), and only four pitchers in the country have higher whiff rates on their fastball so far this year than Burns.

And just to give hitters one more thing to worry about, Burns can also drop in the big-breaking 79-84 mph curveball for a strike — he threw it four times Saturday, once for a strikeout. He’ll also mix in a 90-92 mph changeup, but he uses it sparingly and it is not an out pitch yet.

For Burns, one particular mental cue has helped him repeat his newly revamped delivery, helping unlock his command and make all of his stuff better.

“Staying closed and staying direct. One of the big things for me is I act like there’s a wall behind me, so I don’t fall open,” Burns said. “That helps me stay on line and makes all the pitches kind of better.”

All of it adds up to an overpowering first month as a Demon Deacon for Burns, who is now 3-0, 2.31 with 43 strikeouts against 10 walks in 23.1 innings. He’s always been a strikeout pitcher, but his K rate has jumped from 38.4% as a sophomore last year (when 10 of his 18 appearances came in relief) to 48.3% so far this year.

Burns is well known for his demonstrative celebrations after getting big strikeouts to end an inning, and Muscara said he “went into full blackout mode” after emptying the tank in his sixth and final inning Saturday, ending his outing by fanning Duke’s 3- and 4-hole hitters, then screaming and stomping around on his way back to the dugout. But if all you know about Burns’ personality is the emotional celebrations, then you don’t know much — because off the field, he couldn’t be more different.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been around anyone that can get into flow state, or into ‘the zone’ better than him. It’s incredible,” Muscara said. “He’s the nicest, funniest, best teammate. He’s a gentle, really easy-going dude. I wouldn’t say ‘soft spoken’ but kind of. Then he gets on the mound and he’s like a maniac. But it’s cool because before it was just screaming and yelling all the time. Now we’re constantly trying to talk about breath, conserve your energy, stay focused on this pitch.

“He’s really, really fun to coach, and his teammates love him. It’s funny, the Twitter keyboard warriors go out there all the time and they bash him, and I’m telling you, his heart is so good, and he’s such a good kid.” is your online home for college baseball scores, schedules, standings, statistics, analysis, features, podcasts and prospect coverage.