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Greg Burke, Scott Rice may be more than just feel-good stories

Mets pitcher Greg Burke throws a bullpen session

Mets pitcher Greg Burke throws a bullpen session at Tradition Field. (Feb. 19, 2013) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Mets relievers Greg Burke and Scott Rice have emerged as two of the best underdog stories of the spring.

A year ago, Burke made a snap decision to turn himself into a submarine-style pitcher, a last-ditch effort to get back to the big leagues since his only prior stint in 2009.

A year ago, Rice watched the Dodgers' team bus pull away without him, after he had been informed he would begin his 14th straight season in the minors.

On Opening Day, both reached the big leagues, with Rice capping the day by striking out two in a perfect inning in his major league debut.

But, perhaps somewhat lost is that both Burke and Rice may have the potential to be far more than just feel-good stories. It's possible that both might emerge as strong weapons out of the Mets' bullpen, especially if they keep generating ground balls at rates
similar to what they produced in the minor leagues.

Burke, 30, recorded just a 43.6 percent ground-ball rate in 2011, his final season as a standard over-the-top righthander. But that rate jumped to a staggering 60.7 percent -- or roughly 18 percent above the league average -- when Burke began life as a submariner in 2012.

The change in delivery also made Burke nearly unhittable against righthanded hitters. Consider his recent splits, courtesy of Note the difference since his conversion:

2011 Triple-A (Padres)

vs. LHB .328/.416/.572, 29 strikeouts, 20 walks
vs. RHB .303/.359/.410, 47 strikeouts, 20 walks

2012 Double-A and Triple-A combined (Baltimore)

vs. LHB .211/.308/.288, 12 strikeouts, 12 walks
vs. RHB .182/.204/.209, 38 strikeouts, 3 walks

At the very least, that spike in performance suggests that Burke could enjoy a productive existence specializing in facing righthanded hitters, against whom he walked just three batters all last season.

As Burke himself admitted, his conversion may still be a work in progress. For example, his velocity touched the low 90s last season, though it was closer to the high 80s during spring training. Will that velocity return? Is it critical to Burke's success on the mound? With Burke entering just month 13 of his submarine conversion, nobody has a clear answer for either question.

Rice, 31, has always been a groundball pitcher, though until Monday he had played his entire career in the minor leagues. He boasted groundball rates of 64.2 percent and 61 percent in 2011 and 2012 respectively, well above the average of around 42 percent.

But in the last two years, Rice said he has made strides in his command, which has helped to harness the natural movement on his pitches, particularly his two-seam (sinking) fastball.

"Just relax and trust your movement, essentially," Rice said, recalling advice he received from pitching great Greg Maddux. "That was I think a big turning point for me mentally. That just simplified it for me."

Just as Burke has been a headache for righties, Rice has been equally difficult against lefties:

2011 Double-A (Dodgers)

vs. LHB .179/.235/.240, 29 strikeouts, 6 walks
vs. RHB .257/.325/.327, 13 strikeouts, 11 walks

2012 Triple-A (Dodgers)

vs. LHB .193/.287/.265, 28 strikeouts, 11 walks
vs. RHB .292/.354/.417, 19 strikeouts, 11 walks

If Rice keeps generating grounders, and making life miserable for lefthanders, he may have a real chance to launch a big league career as a lefty specialist after 14 years in the minors.

Clearly, both Burke and Rice face a tough challenge in replicating their minor league success against big league hitters. And there's also a good chance that one of them winds up in Triple-A Las Vegas before the end of the weekend, with the Mets needing to call-up a starter for Sunday's game against the Marlins.

Nevertheless, a year after the Mets suffered through some of the worst relief work in baseball, they have reason to believe that they've unearthed a couple of potential steals in both Burke and Rice.

New York Sports