Leading up to Day 1 of the MLB Draft on June 12, we will be conducting Q&A interviews with many prospects who are projected to be first-rounders. For a complete listing of these interviews, click here.
Next up is Jake Burger, a junior third baseman for Missouri State. The 6-foot-2, 220 lb. St. Louis native posted a .341 average with 22 homers and 63 RBI in 57 games for the Bears this year, which was his third as a starter for the team. Burger is considered one of the top power bats available in this year’s draft.
Burger is projected to go to the Yankees with the 16th overall pick in our latest composite mock draft, with ESPN (17-Mariners) and Baseball America (17-Mariners) and MLB.com (21-Orioles) all projecting him as a first-rounder. Be sure to check out Burger’s full scouting report over at SB Nation’s Minor League Ball.
When did you get into baseball as a kid and realize you loved playing the game?
"About four years old. My dad played college ball at Evansville so I had that background. Obviously, he wanted me to play baseball again. Him and I would always go out to the elementary school and do baseball stuff. I fell in love with it when I was pretty small. It’s been a while.”
Growing up, which was your favorite team and who was your favorite player?
"Paul Konerko was my favorite player... or Scott Rolen. One of those two. My favorite team was the White Sox.”
For you, what was the turning point moment when you realized you could potentially be a first-round draft pick?
"I think it was when I got the invite to Team USA last spring, at the beginning of April. I wasn’t really the most talented guy out of high school, I was really just gonna be a four-year guy. After freshman year, I did what I did my sophomore year with the home run numbers [21 HR]. Once I got the invite to Team USA, I realized I could make a career out of this. I was always a hard worker, but never thought I’d get to this point where I am right now.”
Back in high school, what led to your commitment to Missouri State?
"Just the atmosphere and the culture. [Head] Coach [Keith] Guttin has done a great job of creating a family-oriented culture in the locker room. Springfield is a great city; it’s not too far from St. Louis but it’s far enough. It’s historically a great mid-major baseball program. You’ve got guys like Bill Mueller, and Ryan Howard and Brad Ziegler coming out of Missouri State. That’s built the right culture. I knew I needed a place that had good development and I could see Missouri State was a program like that. That ultimately led me to decide to come here.”
A lot of guys in this draft go to big-time SEC or ACC schools with tons of MLB alumni, but Missouri State does have an impressive pro track record as well with those guys you mentioned and others (Shaun Marcum, Ross Detwiler, etc.) Why do you think that is?
"It’s got the facilities of that power-five has. We have access to a lot more things than most mid-majors would. I think it’s just that the coaching staff cares. They recruit guys based on their mental and their off-field stuff just as much as they do on the field. If you’re recruiting the right guys mentally, they’re gonna be guys who are willing to work as hard as they can to develop into those types of players. It’s a two-way street; the coaching staff is always willing to help as well. Coach [Nate] Thompson, our hitting coach here, is always willing to work with us, and [Assistant]] Coach [Paul] Evans has been down here for 28 years and is always willing to work with the pitchers. It’s a two-way street, you’ve got to recruit the right guys but the coaching staff has to be willing to put in the work.”
Have you been able to work with any of those major-leaguers? Are any of those guys still involved with the program?
"Not major-leaguers, but [Red Sox minor-leaguer] Tate Matheny and I have worked together a lot. And then Joey Hawkins, who got drafted by the Cardinals in 2015. They’ve been huge for me and have taught me a lot. I’ve got to give them a lot of props for kind of taking me under their wing. Tate is in the Boston organization right now, but we used to play video games together and just talk baseball with each other. He’s had a huge impact on my career. Ryan Howard, actually, my dad insures his house in St. Louis so before I even made the decision I got to talk to Ryan on the phone. That was a really neat experience. He was in the clubhouse before a game so he talked to me for an hour. That’s the culture about Missouri State that I go back to. Ryan Howard’s willing to talk to a junior in high school about committing there. It’s that, and the pro guys love the program. They’re always coming back. That tells me a lot about the atmosphere that’s been created here.”
Your calling card is power, but that didn’t come until your sophomore year. Since them you’ve hit 43 of your 47 collegiate home runs. What led to that power surge?
"It was a change in approach. I wouldn’t say it was a complete change of my swing. I always hit the ball hard, it was just at the head of the infielder instead of over the infielder’s head. So I stayed back my freshman summer and lifted, which helped. The strength helped big-time. Also, just working on, not hitting under the ball, but getting more backspin and working on getting higher launch angles. If I make 10 outs, I’d rather seven of them be fly-outs. So it was the change of approach, swinging at the right pitches... not taking a fastball on the corner but hitting the mistake, the breaking ball that is left up. I can hit that fastball on the corner, but it would just be for a single through the hole. It was a change in approach. Coach Thompson really worked with me on that and the change in trying to hit the bottom part of the ball. My dad was a big helper on that, him and I worked together a lot on that all summer. It paid off.”
You’ve mentioned how your dad has played a huge role throughout your career. What has he meant to this whole process?
"I can’t put into words how much I owe him. He’s been there every step of the way. Even if I didn’t want to go to the cage at 11 p.m., he was always telling me to go to the cage and get some work in. He’s been a big proponent of both the hard work and off-the-field stuff but also my presence on the field. It’s been unbelievable and I owe him a lot. I owe my mom and sister a lot too for supporting me every step of the way.”
What would you characterize as your biggest strength?
"I would say it’s my bat and my power. I’ve shown I can hit for average as well but obviously the power side of it would be the biggest strength.”
Going forward, what part of your game do you want to improve upon the most as you head to the next level?
"I would say my plate discipline because that can always improve. I feel like I’ve shown that I’ve had good plate discipline over the last three years and developed it, but it’s something you can always be working on. Ranging to my left, I can always get better at as well, at third base obviously. Those are the two things.”
You walked more than you struck out this season (41 BB, 32 K), so your plate discipline has improved. A ton of power guys do strike out a lot and struggle with that facet of the game. How important is it for you as a power hitter to have that skill and be a well-rounded hitter?
"It just adds to your positives. I’ve never liked striking out and I’ve always had the hand-eye to not strike out a ton. As a power hitter, you’re gonna strike out... that’s part of it. There are certain situations that call for you to not ground into a double play and instead, take a hack. Obviously that’s not gonna go your way all the time, but being who I am, I just enjoy getting on base for the team. Any way that is, whether it’s a single or a bomb. I know I have to fill my role as a power guy, so it has to be the right situation. I’m not trying to take a hack every single at-bat. You’ve got to know your favorite situations.”
Here’s the comp question. Pick a major-leaguer, current or former, that your game most resembles.
"I’ve gotten asked this a lot and I’ve debated it every month this year. I’d say I compare myself to Todd Frazier or Nolan Arenado. If I want to go old-school, I’d say Scott Rolen.”
Going to a mid-major like Missouri State, does that give you a chip on your shoulder in this draft going up against so many SEC and ACC guys?
"Yes and no. You always like to beat the Power 5 schools because you feel like their stepbrother. We’re confident in ourselves and that’s not something we need to motivate us. We already know we’re a good program and a good mid-major. It’s always in the back of your mind, but not that much. I’m sure there are guys on my team that have a bigger chip, but not in my opinion for myself.”
Still a couple weeks out, what are your expectations of where you’ll be selected? Any goals for the draft?
"I don’t really have any expectations. I feel like I’ve put up a great season and I do think I’m one of the best college hitters in the draft. Obviously, I’m not in control of the draft so I’ll just see where I go. No goals going in, I just want to play hard for the organization that picks me and see where it goes. I think I’m ready for the next step in pro ball and we’ll see where it takes me.”