MILWAUKEE -- Pete Vuckovich spit, snarled and growled his way to the Brewers’ last Cy Young Award in 1982. Nearly four decades later, cool and collected Corbin Burnes flat-out dominated.
Burnes, after participating in a no-hitter and setting a slew of strikeout records on the way to winning the first ERA title in Brewers history, was named the Baseball Writers' Association of America’s National League Cy Young Award winner on Wednesday over runners-up Zack Wheeler of the Phillies and Max Scherzer of the Dodgers in a razor-thin vote. Another Brewers pitcher, Brandon Woodruff, finished fifth.
Burnes and Wheeler each received 12 first-place votes and Scherzer got the other six. Burnes tallied 151 total points via a BBWAA balloting system in which voters ranked their top five pitchers before the start of the postseason. He edged Wheeler by only 10 points. Scherzer finished third with 113 points.
“I figured from the end of the season until now that it was going to be a close vote,” Burnes said. “Everyone's case was different, just based on the season they had.”
Of coming out on top, Burnes said, “It’s one of those things that’s still kind of sinking in. To be honored alongside Max and Zack, who both had great seasons in their own right -- Max has already won three Cy Youngs. Just to be included with those guys, and now to be included on the list of names who have won a Cy Young, it’s pretty special.”
According to the BBWAA, it was the closest NL vote since Cy Young Award balloting expanded to five pitchers in 2010, and only the second time that the winner and runner-up received the same number of first-place votes. In 1981, the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela and the Reds’ Tom Seaver each received eight first-place votes, with Valenzuela winning by just three points, 70-67.
As Burnes joined Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers and Vuckovich as the only pitchers in Brewers history to win the award -- Fingers and Vuckovich won back-to-back years in the AL in 1981 and ’82 -- Burnes personified the evolution of how pitchers are evaluated. Remember “kill the win”? It’s dead. Now, voters reconsidered the notion that winning a Cy Young Award requires 200-plus innings.
Burnes’ 167 innings in 2021 were the fewest for a starting pitcher who won a Cy Young Award in a full season, replacing 2018 AL winner Blake Snell’s 180 2/3 innings. Wheeler, meanwhile, led the NL -- and the Majors -- with 213 1/3 innings, or 46 1/3 innings more than Burnes. Wheeler’s ERA was a sparkling 2.78.
That was not necessarily the fault of Burnes, who took every turn in the rotation he was offered aside from a two-week stint on the IL in April and May following a positive test for COVID-19. The rest was by plan; the Brewers had six capable starters and used all of them in 2021 to keep the group healthy and productive in a 162-game season coming off 60 games in the pandemic-shortened 2020. The Brewers also had a superior bullpen, and manager Craig Counsell made no apologies for erring on the side of rest, saying, “I’m not sorry we did it. I’m happy we did it.”
When Burnes did pitch, he was almost always dominant. The right-hander led MLB in ERA (2.43), expected ERA (2.01), 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 (2.9%). Only Scherzer had a lower WHIP than Burnes’ 0.94. Only Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, in 1999, has posted a lower FIP in the divisional era (since 1969).
Burnes made history along the way. He 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 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 Josh Hader secured the final three outs.
“Having a front row seat to watching Corbin pitch all year was incredible,” Woodruff said. “This recognition is well-deserved. If you look across the board at what he’s done, nothing has been given. He’s worked for all of it.”
Just two years ago, it was difficult to see Burnes reaching the pinnacle of his profession. After a terrific rookie showing out of the bullpen in 2018, Burnes began ’19 in the starting rotation and struggled, to put it mildly. He surrendered three home runs in each of his first three starts and two more in the fourth start, earning the first of what would be three demotions to the Minor Leagues. Burnes bounced between the Majors, the Minors and the organization’s pitching lab in Phoenix, and he finished the year with an 8.82 big league ERA, highest for any NL pitcher who worked as many as Burnes’ 49 innings that season.
“We were so early in our careers,” Woodruff said. “We were still trying to establish ourselves. It’s one of those things that you can’t explain how that year happened for Corbin. But I remember towards the end of the year, he was making some progress, some adjustments. I think he had a plan going into that offseason.”
Burnes went back to the drawing board.
He reported to 2020 Spring Training having undergone Lasik surgery and worked extensively with a mental skills coach, a commitment that Burnes cites as critical to the success that has followed. He ditched the windup and focused on pitching exclusively from the stretch. In the Brewers’ lab, he made a subtle grip change that transformed a troublesome four-seam fastball into a cutter with crazy movement and -- this is key -- far better command. Burnes threw the cutter more than 30 percent of the time during the shortened 2020 season and more than 50 percent of the time in ’21.
The results were stunning.
In 2020, Burnes finished with a 2.11 ERA in 59 2/3 innings and placed sixth in NL Cy Young Award balloting.
In ’21, Burnes’ age-26 season, no pitcher in the league was better.
“His cutter came on right before COVID hit,” Brewers pitching coach Chris Hook said Wednesday on MLB Network. “He started playing with a true cutter and started commanding it on both sides of the plate, and then we had that two- to three-month break to really tighten it up. When we came back to Summer Camp, he was really on board with it, felt good with it throwing to both sides of the plate.
“He’s always had command since he signed with us. He had a little bit of an issue in 2019; it was doing too much. Now I think he’s settled into who he is, and with all the nasty pitches he has, it was a tough at-bat.”
This year’s Cy Young Awards share a comeback story in common. AL winner Robbie Ray of the Blue Jays had a 6.62 ERA in 2020, highest ever for a pitcher the year prior to winning a Cy Young Award.
“Everyone has their story about how they got to the big leagues and that  season is part of the story that I have; getting knocked around my first time as a starter then coming back and figuring it out,” Burnes said. “It's one of those things that's just kind of a test. Credit to the Brewers for sticking with me and providing all the resources I needed to turn things around. It's a similar situation with Robbie Ray. He had some ups and downs earlier in his career but he had a career year this year and won a Cy Young as well.
“Baseball is always evolving.”