NL's most dominant pitcher might not win Cy
Corbin Burnes is putting up a Pedro-esque performance
The following two statements about Milwaukee ace Corbin Burnes are each true.
• He is having one of the most dominant pitching seasons on a per-inning basis in the last century of baseball, and:
• He is very unlikely to win the National League Cy Young award.
If those two things seem difficult to square, the reasoning isn’t hard to understand. In part because he missed more than two weeks early in the season due to a positive COVID-19 test, and in part because the pitching-rich Brewers have regularly used a six-man rotation, Burnes has thrown just 144 innings this season.
That's 44 2/3 innings fewer than Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler, who's also building a strong Cy case. Burnes is 39 frames behind Walker Buehler, who might be considered the favorite; he's just 10 behind Max Scherzer, who is pushing himself into the conversation.
That matters, of course. The more innings you throw at an above-average level, the fewer there are for the (presumably lesser) members of your pitching staff to handle. That’s why the best pitchers not only pitch well, they pitch more. (Except for the handful of times a reliever has won the Cy, apparently.)
Thing is, at a very high level, that calculation -- good innings and lots of them -- is what WAR attempts to do. If you look at the FanGraphs NL pitching WAR leaderboards, you’ll see Burnes (6.5) and Wheeler (6.4) in essentially a dead heat, which is telling you that Burnes has thrown higher-quality innings, but Wheeler has thrown more of them, still quite good. From there, how you value it is more a philosophical choice.
How, if you’re a voter, do you weigh the gap between “he’s pitching unbelievably well” against “... but not as often as the other guys?” We don’t envy those writers holding a ballot this year. Let’s try to help them out.
Burnes' 2021 has been truly historic
If we start by saying Burnes is “having one of the most dominant pitching seasons on a per-inning basis in the last century of baseball,” we’re going to need to back that up.
There are, obviously, a million different metrics that all tell their own stories. For this, we’re looking at Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP, which takes the things a pitcher has a great deal of control over (strikeouts, walks, home runs and hit by pitches) and puts them on an ERA scale. You might prefer ERA and that’s fine; we’re using FIP because it attempts to take the effects of good or poor defense, and good or poor batted ball luck, out of it. (Importantly, here, because there's evidence Milwaukee's defense has not performed well behind Burnes.)
So let’s go back to 1920 and look at the 8,735 different seasons where a pitcher has thrown 140 or more innings, sorted by lowest FIP, and … oh, wow. There are a few pitching seasons that are just burned into your brain as “iconic years of greatness,” and it’s hard to do better in that department than “1999 Pedro” and “1968 Gibson,” right?
Lowest FIP, 1920-2021, min 140 innings
1.39 -- Pedro Martinez, 1999
1.58 -- Burnes, 2021
1.69 -- Dwight Gooden, 1984
1.77 -- Bob Gibson, 1968
1.80 -- Clayton Kershaw, 2016
1.81 -- Kershaw, 2014
1.85 -- Sandy Koufax, 1963
It’s an obscene list of greatness, and also a guy who had an 8.82 ERA two years ago. (Back in April, we investigated all the changes Burnes had made to turn his career around.) Due to changing tastes, we'll probably never see another reliever win the Cy again, but for the record, Burnes is pitching more effectively than Dennis Eckersley did in 1992, when he had a 1.72 FIP in only 80 innings and somehow not only won the Cy, but the Most Valuable Player award as well. (Again: Times have really changed.)
Yes, there’s an innings gap on that list. Martinez threw 213 1/3 innings in ‘99. Gibson threw 304 2/3 innings in ‘68. We’ll get back to that, but for now, stick with the dominance. Why is Burnes’ FIP that low, right up there with some of the most celebrated seasons of all time? It feels like this part should be easy, given that he did start his season off with a record-breaking -- and eye-popping -- 58 strikeouts before issuing his first walk, pitching almost literally as well as it is possible to pitch. He then separately tied a record last month by striking out 10 consecutive batters.
As we said, it’s mostly about strikeouts, walks and home runs, and so:
Strikeouts: His 34.4% strikeout rate is third best this year, among those with 140 innings pitched.
Walks: His 4.9% walk rate is tied for second best.
Home runs: His 0.31 HR/9 -- that’s a mere five homers against 569 batters -- isn’t just the best in 2021 by a lot, it’s the third lowest of the 21st century.
If you look at the six likely primary competitors for the NL Cy Young -- here we're including Burnes, Wheeler, Scherzer, Buehler, Kevin Gausman and Brandon Woodruff -- you can see that only Scherzer tops Burnes in strikeout rate, but Burnes has a lower walk rate, and Scherzer has allowed four times as many home runs in just 10 more innings.
In fact, we can do a little better with that last part, the home run mark. FIP focuses only on home runs, not worrying about other batted balls (since those can be affected by fielders, obviously). Statcast accounts for the quality of contact, and wouldn’t you know it: Burnes has the fifth lowest hard-hit rate. He has the lowest barrel rate allowed.
In the seven-year history of Statcast, Burnes’s 2021 is the best season on record, combining quality of contact with strikeouts and walks.
Plus, to go back to the old-school for a second, Burnes’ 2.38 ERA is the third best in the Major Leagues if you choose not to account for the fact that American Family Park is a tougher place to pitch than Dodger Stadium, or tied for the best with Max Scherzer if you acknowledge that it is. This isn't merely a case about what did happen vs. what might have, not when we're focusing so hard on strikeouts, walks and home runs, the real nuts and bolts of baseball stats.
So: pile up whiffs. Don’t walk guys. Don’t allow homers, or really any hard-hit balls at all, or runs. Easier said than done, actually, but the formula for greatness here isn’t complicated.
"I don't even know what to say. I thought I was getting away from him coming over here, but I’ve seen him twice now [as a Giant],” said Kris Bryant after striking out twice against Burnes on Aug. 30. Bryant, building himself an interesting Hall of Fame case, has just two hits in 12 career plate appearances against Burnes, both singles. “He's one of the best in the game. He's got five plus pitches and throws strikes, and when he's not throwing strikes, it looks like it's going to be a strike.”
Not, of course, that you needed our help explaining “Burnes is very good,” or even Bryant's assistance. So what about the innings gap? It’s the ultimate quantity vs. quality case.
How much does the innings gap matter?
Burnes starts on Saturday in Cleveland, and he’s likely to get three more starts after that. Assuming roughly six innings per start -- though it’s possible that with the NL Central long wrapped up, the Brewers give him a break in the final week of the season -- he’d end with 168 innings. He won’t come close to Wheeler. Let’s say the 40-45-inning gap we currently see persists.
That’s a lot. Setting aside shortened seasons and relievers, no primary starting pitcher has won the Cy with fewer innings than Blake Snell’s 180 2/3 in 2018, overcoming a 35-inning deficit behind AL leaders Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander. Snell’s case was much more an old-school one, as he was fueled by the shiniest of the traditional stats (21 wins and a 1.89 ERA) to get there. That’s not Burnes’ case this year.
Then again, the game has certainly changed since Gibson and friends were piling up 300-inning seasons half a century ago; it’s changed even since Snell’s 2018. Wheeler will get to 200 innings, but he might be the only one who does; there were 13 just three years ago; there were 39 a decade ago; there were 108 back in Gibson’s “Year of the Pitcher” 1968.
Because so few starters eat up innings now, you might want to give the ones who do -- like Wheeler -- extra credit. On the other hand, since there really aren’t those types of starters anymore, and because teams are clearly looking to squeeze value out of every last pitch, should Burnes be penalized for being that type of starter?
That’s especially true because the per-game gap between Wheeler and Burnes is not nearly as large as we expected it to be. Just look at the National League leaders (again, minimum 140 innings) for innings per start. Wheeler leads, but not by as much over Burnes as you might have thought.
NL leaders, innings per start (min 140 innings)
6.7 -- Wheeler
6.5 -- Adam Wainwright
6.4 -- Buehler
6.1 -- Sandy Alcantara
6.0 -- Burnes (tied with Woodruff, Wade Miley)
Looking at it with pitches per start, Wheeler leads with 101, while Burnes is tied for 10th with 93. Are eight pitches per start enough to decide a Cy Young Award? The difference, then, comes down to the fact that Burnes has four fewer starts than Wheeler, easily explainable by the two-week COVID absence and Milwaukee’s near-constant usage of a six-man rotation.
Put another way, Wheeler has tossed 15.6% of Philadelphia’s innings, Buehler has thrown 14.3% of Los Angeles’ and Burnes has thrown 11.6% of Milwaukee’s. It’s a difference, a meaningful one, probably enough to cost this year’s most dominant pitcher the award, yet not so much that he won't have a case in a year without an obvious, no-doubt, must-win favorite.
There’s not really a right or wrong answer here, and we’ve seen a version of this happen in the recent past, back in 2016, when Kershaw, easily the most dominant pitcher of the year, threw only 149 innings and finished fifth, collecting two first-place votes. (One of those votes came from now-Padres executive Dave Cameron, who wrote that Kershaw “consolidated a full year’s worth of value into the time he spent on the mound ... for me, he was the best pitcher in the NL this year, and that’s why I put him at the top of my ballot,” words that could easily be written about Burnes this year.)
Back in ‘16, the innings gap was much larger; the winner, Scherzer, threw 79 1/3 more innings than Kershaw did. That won’t happen this year, nor will Burnes fail to even qualify for the ERA leaderboard, as Kershaw did. But our guess is that the outcome will be similar; an all-time great season, hampered by a lack of league-leading innings, will collect a few first-place votes, and end up finishing third or fourth or fifth. It might not be a satisfying outcome. It's not an easy question to answer, either. You may prefer more quantity. You cannot possibly argue the quality.