Morning reading and meticulous grading: an inside look at Burnes’ preparation

September 17th, 2021

In the midst of an already historic season for the Brewers pitching staff, Corbin Burnes and Josh Hader added another milestone last Saturday while combining for the franchise’s second-ever no-hitter.

Burnes was especially untouchable in the outing: he took a perfect game into the seventh before completing eight innings on a career-high 115 pitches.

A first-time All-Star this season, Burnes attributes his consistency and success to the mental work and routines he developed during the 2019 offseason. His work with Brian Cain, his mental performance coach, began that offseason, and the two continue to work together in between starts.

Below, you’ll find two conversations: one with Burnes the day before his historic no-hitter, and one with pitching coach Chris Hook the day after the milestone.

Q&A with Corbin Burnes – Sept. 10, 2021

SM: How has the structure of your work with Brian Cain helped you to be consistent with your process and performance on the mound?

CB: It creates the base in the foundation for what your work week looks like. That's how we started back in 2019. It was a little more difficult in September when I was coming out of the bullpen. To be able to kind of put a good plan in place coming into 2020 when I was going to be in the rotation, or at least going every five days, allowed us to really set up our platform for success. Whether it’s videos, concentration stuff, breathing exercises, going in depth on scouting reports, it gives you that four-to-five day plan.

SM: How much reading and studying do you do on a daily basis? How has that become a part of that foundation in terms of how you implement it into your work and how you assess your starts?

CB: So, the book I read every day -- I read a chapter out of The Mental ABC's of Pitching. And that's something that it takes four or five minutes each morning to wake up and read. [I] read a chapter every day. And then usually bullpen days and start days, I read the “Execution” chapter, which basically just shows you how to break down performance to try to stay away from the results side of it [and] how to break it down from the mental side of it. [From an] execution standpoint, the key to it is, basically, did you throw the pitch where you wanted to? Where was your mind in that scenario? That's probably the easiest way for me to break down starts.

The other reading I do every day is The Daily Stoic, and it's just a philosophical book to kind of break down different ideas, just to get in the right mindset for the day. And then the podcast that I [listen to] once a week is called The Philosopher Note. It’s an app. Different readers break down books, and it's like a 20 minute overview book. It's all different types of athletes that have written their own books, so it’s kind of getting their mindset and knowing what they do on a daily basis.

All that takes 10-to-15 minutes in the morning. The podcasts, the reading -- you do [these] over four or five days for five minutes a day, so just a way to kind of get your morning going.

SM: How has this process helped you evaluate each outing and set goals for each time you take the mound?

CB: Basically, the day after, you know, if I go through and I throw 95 pitches, I look at every pitch. I figure out what pitch was called -- whether it's, you know, let's say cutter to a right hander down and away – and I have a specific zone I'm looking for this pitch to be executed, and if it's not, then it’s not an executed pitch. We’ll tally that throughout the 95 pitches for that day, and then you're able to take a step back, because the execution gives you a certain percentage of how many pitches you're able to execute, and you can face that based on how you felt that day.

Obviously, you want to feel great, you want to execute a lot of pitches. In turn, most likely that’ll lead to good results. So, just a way to break down an outing versus looking at a line and saying, “hey, I gave up two runs over six innings and punched out ten.” Well, did you do it effectively? You only executed 70 percent of your pitches, which is decent but not great, so overall [it] wasn't a tremendous start like the line said. So, basically, it's a way of keeping you grounded; keeping you in your process of getting after it every five days, and trying to see how high you can get that execution percentage.

SM: When you look back on the season you've had so far, how many times have you met your goal of 80 percent executed pitches, and is there one that you’re most proud of?

CB: I think I’ve made 24 starts. I'd say I’m at 78 percent or above, which is the range I'm shooting for. I believe it’s 18 of the 24 starts. So far, it's been good, as far as that goes. Some of my lower numbers have been 65-to-70 percent, so the closer I get to that 80 percent mark the better. It just provides me a way to kind of compare based on how I felt.

SM: How has this evaluation system helped you to create your own kind of assessment?

CB: It just provides me a way to know the next day. Obviously, I try to flush every start the day-of whether it's good or it's bad. We try to move on. But then the next day is the preparation phase, and for me that's the first step in my preparation phase.

So, as I'm going through, I know that the cutter execution wasn't great just from feel the day before, [so] let's compare the execution numbers to what I felt like. So, okay, we know we need to work on the cutter a little bit. I didn't spin the curveball great, let’s check out where we’re missing the curveball. It provides me that first day of my work week: what I want to work on; what I'm trying to accomplish over the next four days.

SM: So, break down your September 5 start against the Cardinals for me.

CB: It's been a while. I think we were at about 76 percent execution. I have to go back and look to verify that. We're happy with it. One of the concepts that you get when you execute pitches is you get weak contact [and] swings and misses. Thinking back and looking at it, the hardest contact I gave up was the base hit to Goldschmidt, and it wasn't a terrible pitch. It was right on the border zone for me for an execution pitch. Those you just have to tip your hat. But, yeah, for the most part, we were able to spin the ball well -- changeup was good, cutter was good, everything was working well. So, this week’s work week was just keep spinning the ball, maintain and get the body feeling right, and basically, as the season goes on, just make sure that you're feeling good coming into the postseason.

Update: In the days after his no-hitter, Corbin Burnes shared that his execution rate was 78 percent. His highest rate on the season is 81 percent, which he has accomplished in two starts. The first was his historic start on Aug. 11 at Wrigley Field, when he struck out 10 straight batters in an eight-inning, 15-strikeout effort. Most recently, he hit that threshold on Sept. 5 against the Cardinals in a five-inning, seven-strikeout effort.

Q&A with Chris Hook, pitching coach – Sept. 12, 2021

SM: What did you see from Corbin during last night’s no-hitter?

CH:, You could see early on that he had all four [pitches] going. The curveball obviously stood out -- the usage was really good last night. We’ve always kind of felt like the curveball sets up everything else for him. Last night was just right from the start, four pitches [looking] really good, and he's had those outings before that. You just have to kind of let it play out, but it was special.

SM: For as much as you've seen Corbin pitch, at what point did you realize the outing would be special?

CH: Well, like I said, it's happened so many times where he's kind of started off really special, and you talk about the 10-K night in Chicago. I think it's four or five outings that he's had that kind of stuff, and I think as a pitching coach, and you’ve done it so long, and it's kind of like, “wait it out.” You’re like, “this looks really, really good, but there's always something that can go awry” -- and it's one pitch. The play that Lo [Lorenzo Cain] made could have been very easily a base hit, but those are special moments. It’s like pitch to pitch, and then when it's over, you're like, “oh that was a no-hitter night.” But it was special, when like I said, we knew from the start that he had really, really good stuff.

SM: As it's getting deeper into the game and he’s lobbying pretty hard to go back out there for the eighth inning, how tough are those decisions as you and Craig are watching the game unfold and you're talking to Corbin in between innings?

CH: It’s a long-term goal here, we're trying to win the World Series, we're not just trying to get a no-hitter tonight, and I think it's hard for fans to understand. I know it's just a moment in time -- it's a special moment. We're also trying to get other special moments in October, and that's kind of the thought process. It’s a long-term thought process with what we're trying to do. We've done that since day one. I think that we've stuck with that, and I think that was the selling point. I think Corbin understands that.

SM: How proud were you to see Corbin Burnes, Josh Hader and Omar Narváez put together that kind of performance? I know it’s collaborative effort.

CH: Absolutely, I'm excited for the pitchers, but I'm more excited for the catcher. There's a lot of responsibility, and Omar has come so far [with] his pitch calling and taking responsibility for reading swings. He’s done an incredible job this year. I think that gets under looked with everything else he's done offensively. The defense has been off the charts.