NL Cy winner Burnes to start Opening Day for Crew

March 29th, 2022

PHOENIX -- Christian Yelich saw at his lowest. In 2019 -- the year Burnes shuttled between the Majors, the Minors and the Brewers’ pitching lab trying to answer how a player with such electric stuff was finding so little in the way of results -- Yelich had a neighboring locker at American Family Field.

“That was the bad luck locker,” Yelich said. “Everybody who had it was up and down. It was a revolving door.”

Burnes, as you probably noticed, made it back. On the heels of that disheartening 2019 season, he turned a hittable four-seam fastball into one of baseball’s best cutters with an adjustment of grip. He underwent Lasik. Most impactfully, he worked with a mental skills coach and transformed his outlook of failure and success.

And then, Burnes had a ton of success. In the shortened 2020 season, he flirted with the National League ERA title. In 2021, Burnes set strikeout records, made his first All-Star team, combined with Josh Hader on Milwaukee's second no-hitter and became the first Crew pitcher in a generation to win his league’s Cy Young Award.

Now, what could Burnes do to top that? How about his first career start on Opening Day.

Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Tuesday that Burnes will start April 7 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, making the announcement a day after Burnes threw about 75 pitches in five sharp innings of a 5-2 win over the Giants, when he surrendered a leadoff double and then retired 14 of the final 16 hitters he faced with eight strikeouts. He has been lined up all spring at the top of a starting rotation that represents the clear strength of a team with World Series aspirations. Brandon Woodruff, who has started each of the past two regular-season openers, has been pitching a day after Burnes, followed by Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer.

“It’s not as no-brainer as you'd think it would be, actually,” Counsell said after making Burnes as his pick, which was a nod to Woodruff's excellence in recent seasons.

On the other hand, Counsell said, "[Burnes] won the Cy Young. Yeah."

In typically understated fashion, Burnes called it "cool news."

"On a team like this, it could have been any of the five guys in the rotation to start the year," Burnes said.

He was asked whether this was one of his goals back in the winter of 2019-20, at the start of his comeback.

"I've always known I had the stuff to be the top pitcher in the league," Burnes said. "But as far as where I wanted to be -- Opening Day starter, Cy Young, All-Star -- that's not something I ever had my mind set on. It's something you kind of dream about as a kid. Once you get into pro ball, it's all about how you can stay in the big leagues and perform to the best of your ability. I learned after 2019, it's going to be through the mental game for me.

"I had a brief conversation with Counsell when he told me, and it's just like, 'Hey, what's changed me as a pitcher is the mental game, the mental side of it.' You go look at my stuff in the Minor Leagues in '17, '18 and in the big leagues in '19 [compared] to now, it's all very similar stuff. But the focus on sticking to my routines and the mental side of it is what has transformed me into the pitcher I am today.''

Burnes said he’s aiming for 30 starts in 2022 after leading MLB in ERA (2.43), expected ERA (2.00), FanGraphs WAR (7.5), strikeout rate (35.6%, eighth-best all-time for a qualifying pitcher), K/BB ratio (6.88), FIP (1.63), home runs per nine innings (0.38) and barrel rate (3.1%) in '21.

He made history along the way. Burnes started the season with 58 strikeouts before issuing a walk, breaking Adam Wainwright’s record for a starting pitcher and Kenley Jansen’s record for any pitcher in a season. On Aug. 11, Burnes struck out 10 consecutive Cubs to match the Major League mark shared by Hall of Famer Tom Seaver and Aaron Nola. And on Sept. 11 in Cleveland, Burnes threw the first eight innings of the second no-hitter in Brewers history, watching from the dugout as Hader secured the final three outs.

It completed a stunning transformation. Just two years earlier, in 2019, Burnes had an 8.82 ERA in 49 innings.

“There’s great pitchers that have done this,” Counsell said. “Roy Halladay comes to mind, somebody who did a similar path. It’s the nature of how competitors and great athletes find a way to keep going and not be knocked down. As much as anything, it’s not on the physical side that Corbin made all these improvements. It’s the rest of the game where he has controlled everything so well and been so good at.”

Yelich has watched it happen up close.

“I think that just shows how hard the big leagues are,” Yelich said. “It’s constantly about making adjustments. You have to always be trying to get better. Sometimes it takes guys some time to settle in. Everybody wants young guys to come up and be stars or they’re no good. There’s a handful of guys that do that.

“I forget who it was, but I remember talking to somebody at first base [in 2019] when Burnes was really struggling. He said, ‘This guy is going to be really good.’”

Burnes said he still strives to get better. He has been focused this spring on honing his preparation between starts, believing there is room to improve there. Burnes spent two weeks on the COVID-19 IL last season and pitched in a rotation that sometimes featured a sixth starter.

Back-to-back Cy Young Awards are not unprecedented in Brewers history, but Burnes is bidding to be the first pitcher to do it himself. Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich won the award in back-to-back seasons in the American League in 1981 and ’82. In the Burnes household, which grew by one on March 2 with the birth of a son named Carter, the honor still hasn’t quite sunk in.

“I think my wife a couple of times has kind of been like, 'Whoa, that actually happened,’” Burnes said. “Maybe once I get the trophy and it's sitting on the mantle underneath the TV, maybe it'll hit me a bit more.

“It's just one of those things that for me -- it was a good season. I did what I wanted to do and went into prepping this offseason the same kind of way. Hopefully, we can do it again.”