Tanner Burns was one of the top prospects in the 2017 MLB draft class but decided he didn’t want to jump straight into professional baseball out of high school.
Burns, a right-handed pitcher, honored his commitment to Auburn University. Working with Auburn head coach Butch Thompson, who’s one of the best pitching minds in college baseball, intrigued Burns, as he believed that was the best route for his development as a baseball player.
That decision has paid off for Burns. Over the last 2½ years, Burns has refined his skills under the guidance of Thompson and the surrounding group of coaches and players around him to develop into a top prospect for June’s MLB draft.
As a freshman in 2018, Burns learned under right-handed pitcher Casey Mize, who was the top overall pick in that year’s draft class. Burns also spent the first two years working with pitching coach Steve Smith, who accepted the head coaching position at Tennessee Tech in December.
Seventeen-year major-league pitcher Tim Hudson assumed the role as Auburn’s pitching coach in January. Despite only working with Hudson for a month, Burns raves about his experience with Hudson, who won 222 games in his pro career with Oakland, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Burns, who’s entering his junior season this spring, believes the coaching he has received at Auburn has prepared him for the pro ranks.
“The main reason I came to Auburn is because I want to be a pro player, and I want to be a big leaguer,” Burns said. “I was looking at statistics that getting to the big leagues in terms of pitchers there is a high percentage that are college guys. I have always wanted to pitch in the big leagues.
“I’d rather spend three years here developing and playing in the best conference on TV every day, so I can further my chances of playing in the big leagues one day.”
As a freshman, Burns slid right into Auburn’s rotation and tallied a 3.01 ERA with 77 strikeouts and 37 walks allowed in 86 2/3 innings.
Burns served as Auburn’s No. 1 starter and thrived in that role last year. He recorded a 2.82 ERA with 101 strikeouts and 23 walks allowed in 79 2/3 innings. In his third start of the season, Burns notched 15 strikeouts in a complete-game shutout, tying the program record for strikeouts in an appearance with Hudson, Mize and three others.
Last season didn’t end like Burns hoped, however. He experienced shoulder tightness late in the season, forcing him to miss a start and limited him during Auburn’s College World Series run.
Burns didn’t pitch in the summer and during fall practices as precaution but enters this spring 100 percent, he said.
Burns is a 6-foot, 215-pound right-hander who has a strong and athletic build and throws a four-seam fastball, two-seamer, spike curveball, slider and changeup.
His fastballs are his best offerings and consistently sit in the mid-90s. After being a three-pitch pitcher in high school, throwing a fastball, changeup and curveball, Burns added a slider once he started at Auburn. He’s confident throwing his curveball and slider in any counts and both pitches serve as strikeout pitches.
He has above-average control and command of his pitches.
“I think the command of my fastball is my biggest strength,” Burns said. “Coach Thompson always says that command is authority over the baseball. I would say I take a lot of pride in fastball command and command of all my pitches.”
Burns spent the offseason doing prehab work to strengthen his forearm, shoulder and core in hopes of remaining healthy the entire season this year.
He also hopes to improve his changeup. Although this offseason his changeup has looked “the best it has,” Burns hopes to gain more confidence with the offering and throw it for strikes at a higher percentage.
“I just want to stay connected in all my pitches and be able to throw them for strikes anytime I want to,” Burns said. “I just feel like that will lead me deeper into games.”
The Tigers reached the College World Series last season for the first time since 1997. The appearance didn’t go like they hoped, as they lost both of their games, falling to Mississippi State and Louisville.
This year, expectations are high for the Tigers again. Burns and left-handed pitcher Jack Owen are back to lead their rotation and their lineup returns seven of their nine starters.
“We need to continue to know who we are, and we also need to have confidence in ourselves and know we can play with anyone,” Burns said. “Everyone needs to also know what their role is early because we don’t want any ‘I’ teammates. We want teammates. I feel like this year, I am more confident after this past fall with the depth we have and development of our players.”
Read more stories on top 2020 MLB draft prospects here.
Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for five years. He’s interviewed 191 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.