Burnes' cutter devastates in latest Cy push

September 20th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- still has work to do. So do the Brewers. But perhaps there was a moment on Saturday night at Miller Park, while Burnes was racking up nine more strikeouts in six more scoreless innings of a 5-0 win over the Royals, to pause and appreciate a young pitcher coming into his own.

hit another huge September home run to pad the lead during a four-run eighth inning, and and covered the final three innings of a four-hit shutout, but it was Burnes who did most of the heavy lifting on the way to the Brewers’ third consecutive victory. It kept the pressure on Cincinnati and St. Louis in the race for the National League Central’s second postseason berth, and kept Milwaukee in the hunt for the NL Wild Card, should it come to that.

“You don’t see many guys in the league who can spin the ball three different ways and with that velocity,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said. “He was a handful.”

The Brewers’ only run for seven innings was a third-inning tally without the benefit of a hit, and that was enough to make a winner of 25-year-old Burnes, who is in line for one more regular-season start to complete his resume for NL Cy Young Award consideration. Burnes is the league leader in wins above replacement among pitchers (2.6), ERA (1.77), strikeouts per nine innings (13.34), hits per nine innings (4.98) and opponents’ batting average (.158).

And, remarkably, he is second-best among qualifiers in home runs allowed -- 0.19 per nine innings, or one in 56 innings overall this season. Only the Braves’ Max Fried (0 home runs in 55 innings) has been more stingy. For Burnes, it’s remarkable considering how thoroughly he was burned by the long ball a year ago, when he opened the season in Milwaukee’s starting rotation but was bounced after yielding 11 home runs in his first 17 2/3 innings spanning four starts, on the way to 17 homers in 49 innings in 2019. His troubles earned Burnes a ticket to the bullpen, then to the Minors, and eventually to the Brewers’ pitching lab in Phoenix, where he began to remake his arsenal and sharpen his mental skills.

The results have been stunning, and it all starts with a cut fastball that is suddenly among baseball’s best. Burnes threw it for 50 of his 100 pitches against the Royals while scattering four hits, his highest percentage of cutters all season, and saw it induce 11 of his 20 swings and misses. He struck out at least seven batters for the fifth consecutive start, held the opponent scoreless for the third time in four starts and improved to 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA in seven starts since rejoining the rotation from a tandem with veteran left-hander .

All of which is to say, Burnes has been very good for the Brewers. Remember those 17 home runs in 49 innings in 2019? With Saturday’s six innings, Burnes has not allowed a homer in his last 49 innings of 2020.

“He’s a whole different pitcher this year,” said catcher , who has paired with Burnes for years in the Brewers' system. “Just to be able to attack guys the way we do, get swings and misses, is a lot better this year.”

“It's a great lesson for all of us about how players develop,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It's not always the same for everybody. It's not always a straight, linear path. A player has a choice when he struggles with what it's going to look like or how he's going to adjust. It's a credit to Corbin for how he's chosen to address everything; mental, physical, pitch selection. I don't think any of them needed big tweaks, but obviously, they've made a huge difference.”

Burnes admits peeking at his numbers from time to time, but mostly to check on whether there are any areas of his game that need improvement. And thanks to MLB Network’s constant presence in the clubhouse, he’s aware of the candidates for the NL Cy Young Award, including Fried, Trevor Bauer of the Reds, Yu Darvish of the Cubs, Jacob deGrom of the Mets and others.

More important, Burnes said, is winning games so the Brewers can play into October. His final scheduled start of 2020 is shaping into a big one on Thursday, when the Brewers open what looks to be a huge, five-game series in St. Louis.

“You know, I've been fortunate enough since I've been up here for September to [play] meaningful baseball,” Burnes said. “I think we're still a game out of the postseason, but just to know that if you win two or three or four in a row, rattle off a couple of wins, you're in the postseason. So it's always nice to play meaningful baseball this late in the year.”