PLANT CITY, Fla. - Dave Burba may soon be staking a claim to stardom. He says he has ''struck gold.''
The Cincinnati Reds' journeyman right-hander believes he is in the midst of a breakthrough that could propel him into pitching's elite. He purports to have improved his velocity, his control and the movement on his pitches since last season while reducing the strain on his rotator cuff.
It is the surest sign of spring: A ballplayer with a new reason to believe.
''It's not going to happen overnight,'' Burba cautioned. ''It's going to be an all-year thing. I probably won't be where I want to be till the end of the season. But I've already seen improvement in every aspect of the game: Less pitches, more strikes, better movement, less stress. Everything you could ask as a pitcher.''
Burba credits his quantum leaps to a Reds scout and amateur physicist named Stan Fuller. Fuller, a former sales manager from Macon, Ga., says he has made a 12-year study of the mechanics of baseball, and is eager
to test his theories on major-league talent. Burba is a pitcher whose stuff has always been better than his statistics. Put the two together and you spell synergy.
''I see myself on a plateau right now,'' Burba said Wednesday. ''You have your big-name pitchers, the guys who are pretty good and the guys who are just starting - the OK pitchers. I think I'm in the middle, and I want to get (better). The only way I'm going to get there is better mechanics.''
Burba's fastball has registered 96 miles per hour on Reds radar guns, but he has had a hard time harnessing his heat. He finished 11-13 last year and failed to complete a single start.
He was prone to many of the problems that afflict pitchers with limited control. He walked too many hitters and went deep in the count so regularly that his stamina was often spent by the seventh inning.
Fuller studied the videotape and saw solutions. He has spent only three days in Burba's company, but has convinced the 30-year-old pitcher that greatness is still within his grasp.
''I think he can win 20 games easy,'' Fuller said. ''Whether he does it or not is up to Dave Burba ... I think he can be on a level with (John) Smoltz. And I'm not saying that just because I work with him. The athlete he is and the work ethic that he's got, I would never say that guy couldn't do anything.''
When Reds General Manager Jim Bowden first learned Burba was working with Fuller, he wasn't sure who the new guru was. Neither was Reds Scouting Director Julian Mock. They later learned Fuller had been put on the payroll as an associate scout - what baseball calls a bird dog - which is about one level higher than an anonymous tip.
Fuller has held similar positions with the Braves and the Cubs, and also serves as a tutor for Russ Branyan, who hit 40 home runs last year for Cleveland's Class A club in Columbus, Ga.
''I can teach hitting or pitching,'' Fuller said. ''It's a mechanical game. It's a science, really ... I'm a baseball mechanic. If you know what's wrong, I know how to fix it.''
The Fuller answer man
Dave Burba's delivery has been overdue for an overhaul. He tends to turn his front shoulder too soon (known in the trade as ''flying open''), and lifts his throwing arm too little. This much was common knowledge. Answers have been more elusive.
''The first time I looked at him, I said, 'This guy's had arm surgery, I guarantee you that,'Ç'' Fuller said. ''He was an accident waiting to happen. We had to reroute his throwing arm. But even though his arm didn't work correctly, it was very loose and that really impressed me.''
At this, Fuller launched into a lengthy discourse on weight distribution and throwing angles and the effect of finger pressure on ball movement. It was more than we wanted to know, and a lot more than we are able to explain.
Dave Burba isn't sure he can explain all of it, either. But for the moment he is content to go with the flow.