After spending parts of four seasons at the short-season and A-ball levels, right-handed reliever Mark Hamburger appears to have turned a corner.
Hamburger is a unique story in that he was initially signed by the Minnesota Twins during an open tryout at the Metrodome. Although he was a solid pitcher with a good arm at Mesabi Range CC in his native Minnesota, the small school didn't exactly get him a lot of attention from scouts.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound hurler, who signed during the summer of 2007, was traded to the Rangers organization in exchange for lefty Eddie Guardado the following year. He finished out the '08 campaign with Single-A Clinton and played the entire '09 season at Single-A Hickory.
With Hickory in '09, Hamburger posted a 4.75 ERA in 41 relief appearances. He logged 66.1 innings, giving up 79 hits, walking 25, and striking out 55. Playing to his scouting report, he flashed a solid fastball but lacked consistent command and secondary stuff.
The Rangers pushed Hamburger forward to High-A Bakersfield out of camp last season. He took advantage of the opportunity by putting up a career-best 1.77 ERA with 18 saves in 37 games. As the season progressed, so did Hamburger––he had logged a string of 19.1 consecutive scoreless innings over 17 outings at the time of his promotion to Double-A Frisco. The success continued at the next level, as he posted a 3.20 ERA with eight walks and 20 strikeouts in 19.2 frames with the RoughRiders.
Hamburger's fastball has a little movement and features plus velocity, working anywhere between 90-96 mph and sitting mostly in the 92-95 mph range. His improved fastball command was a large part of his statistical breakout at the High- and Double-A levels last season.
While scouts often gave Hamburger's 79-82 mph slider below-average (40) grades last season, the pitch has begun to show improvement. During spring training, the 24-year-old was doing a better job getting on top of the offering, giving it increased bite and tilt. He also mixes in the occasional changeup.
The improvements led the Rangers to give Hamburger four appearances in major league games this spring, and he is currently pitching at Double-A Frisco. Through his first seven innings, the righty has yielded three runs on seven hits, walking one and striking out six.
Lone Star Dugout recently caught up with Hamburger, who credits his recent development to a new and improved mental approach.
Jason Cole: I want to go back to last year. You pitched in Bakersfield before getting up to Frisco around early August. How did you feel about your Double-A performance?
Mark Hamburger: I was a little hesitant going in, just not knowing exactly what to expect––not knowing from the hitters or who the team was going to be. I knew the guys, but I was kind of hesitant going in. I guess I kept it in my head that I shouldn't give the batters too much credit. I knew that they were still batters and that I can still throw my pitches. I knew that if my stuff was working, it would work at any level.
Cole: You've played at every level on the way up. Was High-A to Double-A the biggest jump for you, or did you not notice?
Hamburger: I guess I didn't really put my mind to that––where I was thinking, ‘Oh man, these guys are so much better.' I guess that kind of mentally would be me giving them credit. I try not to think of that aspect. But I could definitely see a difference in the level a play. It is a lot more intense, a lot more fans. The atmosphere was a whole lot different.
Cole: You had put up pretty good numbers at every level, but it also seemed like you turned a corner with Bakersfield last season. What did you feel improved the most that allowed you to break out like that?
Hamburger: I thought it was me just really having fun out there. I was kind of critiquing myself in Hickory––my '09 year. And then, when I got to Bakersfield, it wasn't the best surroundings. I kind of went into it with the thought of, ‘I need to do this, I need to do that.' But once I started struggling a tiny bit, I let all those inhibitions go and I just started having fun out there and enjoying myself. The next thing I knew, I had a month without an ERA. I think it was just letting myself relax and get into a groove.
Cole: Yeah, the streak was 17 consecutive scoreless appearances over 19.1 innings. When you're going on a streak like that, did it get into your head at all?
Hamburger: No, I didn't even know it. I'm not a stat guy, so I'm not really looking at the stats. Even when I was in college, I went 14-0 and I didn't know I was undefeated until I was 9-0. I just didn't pay attention to it. I was trying to enjoy myself, enjoy the surroundings, and just kind of focus on the game more. I wanted to focus on what I was doing.
Cole: You played a little winterball in Puerto Rico over the offseason, didn't you?
Hamburger: I had five innings. I think I had three out of the ‘pen and then a spot-start where I went two innings.
Cole: What was the story behind that? How did you end up going down there? It seemed like there were a number of Rangers pitchers on that Ponce staff.
Hamburger: I had talked to my agent and I had talked to a couple of the guys with the Texas Rangers. I'm up in Minnesota during the winter, and sometimes you get caught in a cold drift where you can't really find places to throw. You're always calling people to throw with, and a lot of my friends are gone at school playing baseball. So my options were kind of slim. I asked them if I'd be able to go down to Puerto Rico, and it ended up working out.
Cole: So it was planned that you would only be down there for a few weeks?
Hamburger: Yeah, I was supposed to go down there on the 13th, and it kind of worked out to where I went down there on the 27th of December. It was just more to get my body ready and to kind of see the environment. There were some big leaguers on the team, so they just wanted me to feel it out and see the level of game down there.
Cole: Clearly the atmosphere and everything is much different from what you experience in the States. Tell me about that experience.
Hamburger: It was different. Obviously it's the same game of baseball, but the fans––there were drums and instruments playing and all that stuff. To be in the atmosphere was really cool. I was set up in a gorgeous place on the beach, and I couldn't have complained. And I was still playing baseball and out of the cold. There were so many positives that I couldn't look at it in a bad way.
Cole: Kasey Kiker, Ben Snyder, and a couple others got some time there. Were you out there at the same time as them?
Hamburger: They actually left before Christmas. I was out there with Flores and then a couple of guys I'd played with previously with the Twins. But other than that, I didn't see those guys.
Cole: You also got some action in big league spring training this year. Was it three appearances?
Hamburger: I had four appearances, I think. But yeah, I got a save––my first big league save. And then I gave up a grand slam. I was trying to get that one out of the way.
Cole: It was your first experience in major league spring training games this year. What was that experience like in your first time on the mound?
Hamburger: I went 1-2-3 in that first inning. It was just going up there and feeling it out. I was nervous going up there, but I cleared my head on the mound and said, ‘Just throw to the zone, throw to the zone.' It ended up working out. It felt really good.
Cole: You threw the ninth inning in that first game, right?
Hamburger: No, no, I was in the seventh inning. Neil Ramirez was after me. But I remember right before I came into the game, the pitching coach told me, ‘You've got good stuff, just put it in there. Let the fielders behind you do something.' To hear that was good to calm me.
Cole: Did you feel that your stuff improved at all last season, or did you feel that it was mostly the mindset?
Hamburger: My mindset––I think that helped it all. I had a negative mindset going in, and once I relaxed, it was a whole different game to me.
Cole: Now that you're opening with Double-A Frisco, tell me what you're looking for out of yourself in 2011.
Hamburger: I've told a couple people that I think it's just consistency. It's being able to deliver the same pitch every time. If I feel a bad throw, I want to be able to know exactly what I did––it's knowing my form and to kind of own it. I want to come into myself.
Cole: How much mechanical focus has there been with you over the last couple years?
Hamburger: There hasn't been too much focus. I think that's one of the things that was affecting me in Hickory––I was focusing too much on mechanical and not enough on just learning the game and what pitch counts to throw certain pitches in. My mechanical part––for the past year and a half, I haven't been working too much on mechanics. It has been more about my mindset.
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Hamburger taking a positive mental approach
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