In the first weekend of the 2021 season, the Michigan baseball team played just fine without sophomore infielder Ted Burton, who was out with a non-COVID 19 illness. When Burton returned, Michigan coach Erik Bakich used him sparingly as a pinch hitter for two straight series.
Burton’s position in the pecking order made sense, despite the fact that he’d been an everyday player in his shortened freshman season. Back then, the depth chart at third base was so thin that he started 11 games there, despite dealing with a throwing arm that bothered him and a disappointing .222/.275/.333 slashline.
“Last year we had, at times, four true freshmen in the lineup,” assistant coach Nick Schnabel said. “Sometimes that’s tough.”
He was even worse on defense, committing six errors with a .793 fielding percentage. Most were throwing errors, on account of his arm troubles.
In the offseason, Bakich added fifth-year transfers Christian Molfetta and Benjamin Sems, who would be the everyday third baseman and shortstop, respectively. Junior Riley Bertram remained the starter at second base. Several players, including sophomores Jake Marti and Jimmy Obertop, would take turns at first base.
Despite being one of the Wolverines’ most versatile players in the field — with the ability to play every infield position — Burton found himself out of a starting job.
“In the few weeks I was sick, and I had to find my way back into a lineup of great players,” Burton said. “So wherever the team needed me, I had to be ready to go at all times.”
He was ready to go from his first pinch-hitting appearance of the season, grounding an opposite-field single and scoring an insurance run against Purdue.
Two weeks later, Burton made his first starts of the season against Penn State, replacing a slumping Bertram. As Bertram returned to his usual form at the plate, Bakich kept Burton in the starting lineup by playing him at designated hitter and first base. An injury to Obertop and a benching of Marti further cemented Burton’s starting role.
Burton is no longer in the lineup out of necessity; he’s one of Michigan’s most dangerous and well-rounded hitters. He’s slashing an impressive .333/.440/.633 with four home runs and 18 RBI on the season. And he’s particularly effective in clutch situations, hitting a go-ahead, ninth-inning home run against Minnesota and tying a game against Rutgers with a run-scoring triple.
Once a liability on defense, Burton has evolved and become an asset at several positions.
“He struggled with that throw (from third),” Bakich said. “Being on the right side of the diamond this year, at second and first, has helped him.”
Bakich also attributed his defensive improvement to maturity and a healthier arm. And while Burton has made some miscues in the field — colliding with Molfetta in the pursuit of an infield popup, resulting in the ball being dropped, or running a suboptimal route occasionally — his athleticism and fundamentals far outshine the mistakes, and his fielding percentage is a much-improved .959.
A combination of circumstances and his continued development secured Burton a starting job, and he’s responded by putting up excellent numbers and constant effort every time he takes the field.
“I think he took full advantage of his opportunity when his number got called,” junior right-hander Willie Weiss said.