PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Mets reliever Greg Burke spent two years playing in the Padres' system alongside outfielder Aaron Cunningham, whom he considers a friend. But when Burke faced his old acquaintance's Triple-A team last year, Cunningham had no idea that his former teammate was the one slinging sidearm sinkers at him.
It was not until after the game that Cunningham realized. Burke recalls his friend approaching him to say, "I didn't even realize you were on the team."
Such is the transformative power of the sidearm delivery that Burke began using last spring. It was his idea to drop down to the side, realizing that the Orioles were going to cut him at age 25, at a time when the journeyman label begins to take hold. O's director of pitching development Rick Peterson, who worked with former Mets sidewinder Joe Smith in 2007, took it from there.
For Burke, who cracked the big leagues in 2009 but has not been back since, results came quickly. He shaved more than four runs off his ERA from 2011 to '12, posting a 1.53 mark over 64 2/3 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A, with 50 strikeouts against 13 non-intentional walks.
He also changed his repertoire to accommodate the new delivery, throwing a higher percentage of fastballs with increased sink.
"I picked it up pretty fast, to be honest with you," Burke said. "It wasn't very frustrating at all. It was pretty fast and I was definitely learning throughout the season, for sure. I'm still learning right now, but it came pretty natural."
Regardless, the Orioles granted Burke his free agency in November and the Mets snapped him up three days later, adding him to the 40-man roster so no one could select him in the Rule 5 Draft. Burke, who did not even realize at the time that he was eligible for the Rule 5, appreciated the gesture.
Being on the 40-man gives him a built-in advantage over many of the other right-handed pitchers competing for jobs in the Opening Day bullpen. Manager Terry Collins said he sees Burke more of a multi-inning option than a right-handed specialist, which could also help his chances.
That decision should come during the final week of camp. Until then, Burke will simply continue trying to surprise old acquaintances.
"A lot of guys that I've already faced don't necessarily know that," Burke said of his new delivery. "So last year I faced some guys and they were like, 'Whoa, who the heck is this?' They didn't realize it until after the fact."