PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — For new Tampa Bay Rays reliever Burke Badenhop, the decision of a lifetime boiled down to playing on a farm team — or a pharm team.
The Ohio native graduated magna cum laude in the spring of 2005 with an economics degree from Bowling Green University, where he’d also pitched for the Falcons baseball team. But uncertain of his prospects in the upcoming June amateur draft, Badenhop found himself at an early crossroads that April: day job vs. play job.
The lanky 6-foot-5, then-195-pound right-hander received a lucrative offer to join the prestigious Philadelphia pharmaceutical firm of GlaxoSmithKline — not exactly the kind of career option most aspiring big-leaguers find themselves pondering.
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“When they offered me the job, they said, ‘Well, do you have any other job opportunities you’re weighing?’ ” Badenhop recalled. “And I was like, ‘Well . . . I might play professional baseball.’ ”
The company liked its rookie prospect enough to give him a few months to see how things played out. But by the middle of May, Badenhop (pronounced BADE-en-hop) was more confident that he’d get drafted, in spite of a dismal junior season that had hurt his chances.
“So I regretfully had to decline the job offer,” he said. “The thing is, I would have made fairly decent money coming out of school. And in minor league baseball, you don’t make much. And to be a college player picked in the 19th round and signed for a thousand bucks, the odds are really stacked against you.”
But he’s never had any second thoughts about the decision after the Detroit Tigers selected him in the 2005 draft. Badenhop has enjoyed his share of good hops since then. He wound up getting traded to Florida — part of the deal that sent Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to Detroit — and pitched the past four seasons as a reliever for the Marlins, known for a mean sinker ball and valuable knack for inducing ground balls.
And that’s precisely why the Rays have brought Badenhop to town. Last season, his ground ball percentage of 74.2 ranked sixth among National League relievers. Though he was an all-purpose reliever with the Marlins — compiling a record of 13-15 with an ERA of 4.34 — his role will be that of a specialist with Tampa Bay.
“I’m here to get outs, and hopefully by the nature of the way I get outs, it’s via the ground ball,” he said. “We’ll see how it plays out. Any time you’re pitching in close games or late in games, all outs are important. With the Marlins, I was looked at as the guy who can give us short or long innings — even stretching out to three or four innings. I was more of the versatile guy there. But being able to keep the ball on the ground is where I derive my value and how I can compete for a major league job the last couple of years.”
With the Marlins, his nickname was “The Hopper” — not only a play on his surname but for the little hop step he does at the end of his delivery.
“That’s just kind of how I finish,” he said. “I throw a little bit across my body, so I’m a little bit off-balance. So that hop is not something I do. It just kind of happens — it’s how I balance back up, as opposed to falling over or sideways or something like that. That little balance at the end usually means I’m getting through my pitches pretty well.”
Manager Joe Maddon recently got his first glimpse of Badenhop and the trademark move in a Rays uniform.
“I think that little hop at the end of his delivery is actually ‘The Badenhop,’ and he got named after it,” Maddon quipped.
His more serious assessment: “Guys like that are really nice to have, who can come in and stop things immediately by putting the ball on the ground. So it’s really up to us and me to be watching that game closely to put him in the optimal moment as often as possible.”
Badenhop’s life as a sinker ball pitcher is a fairly recent development in the scheme of things. He never had one in college and didn’t even have a breaking ball in his arsenal of pitches, instead relying heavily on his four-seam fastball. But a year after being drafted by Detroit, he stumbled on the pitch while playing catch, using a two-seam grip.
“I didn’t see the ball moving a ton, but that can also be a good thing,” he said. “If the pitcher can see it moving, a lot of times, so can the hitter. I just started using it and had success with it in that first spring training of ’06. I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that. I’m not a guy who throws really hard, so there’s a lot to be said for keeping the ball on the ground — and also for knowing what kind of pitcher you are.”
By midway through 2006, he used the sinker exclusively and with excellent results. He wound up 14-3 with an ERA of 2.84 with Detroit’s Class A affiliate, West Michigan and was named Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the Tigers — setting him on an eventual path to the majors.
“Now I’d say I throw probably no more than 20 four-seam fastballs in a season,” Badenhop said.
One of the turning points in his early career came in 2006 with former Red Sox starter Bill Monbouquette, then pitching coach for Detroit’s Class A team in Oneonta. That was Badenhop’s first pro team, and he remembers this exchange with Monbouquette: “He asked me, ‘Do you think you can pitch in the big leagues?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s why I’m here.’ And he said, ‘I think so, too. But you’ve got a lot of work to do.’ From then on, I knew that I’d potentially made the right choice.”
What did Badenhop’s parents think at the time? You might assume that is father, Dalynn — director of cardiac rehabilitation at the University of Toledo Medical Center — and mother, Sharon – a college English Literature professor — would have urged their academically gifted son to pursue a safe career option. But you’d be wrong.
“They wanted me to go for it — they supported me, and I couldn’t have gotten more help from them,” he said. “Academics are very important to them, but this was something you can never go back and do. And one thing I knew, too, was that I was continuing to get better and progress toward my goal of playing in the majors. I was 6-5, 195, so I had a little room to grow and get stronger.
That didn’t make it easier for Badenhop at the time, as he watched many of his school friends head off to grad school or land high-paying jobs.
“They’re living normal lives, and I’m making $8,000 a year, living with my parents,” he said. “It was a gamble, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Of course, Badenhop is still attuned to the business world he left behind. His sister, Beth, is a graduate of MIT, and his brother-in-law works in the hedge fund business in Boston. And in addition to being interested in writing movie scripts, he’s already written the foreword to a friend’s 2011 book titled “Financial Planning for Your First Job.”
It’s something he knows a little about, having traded the pharmaceutical field for the baseball field.