8.82 ERA to NL Cy candidate? Believe it

Demoted last year, Burnes is now key to Crew's playoff hopes

September 14th, 2020

Finding your name listed right behind a Hall of Famer is usually a good sign, and after the nightmarish 2019 season that Brewers righty endured, it’s an especially welcomed sign.

Many were first introduced to Burnes as the bespectacled, high-octane reliever who came on in September 2018 and helped Milwaukee get to within a game of that fall’s World Series. The hype was real for a man who fired high-90s missiles to the plate … but then came that hellish ‘19, when Burnes’ 8.82 ERA was the fourth worst of anyone who threw at least 40 innings.

How could someone with elite velocity and literally the second-highest fastball spin rate in baseball -- along with the game’s best swing-and-miss slider -- pitch so poorly? Well, let’s just say the baseball-card numbers are finally catching up to Burnes’ world-class stuff.

Biggest year-to-year declines in ERA
Min. 45 IP in each season

  1. Roy Halladay (TOR): -7.48 (2000: 10.64 | 2001: 3.16)

2) Corbin Burnes (MIL): -6.83 (2019: 8.82 | 2020: 1.99)
3) Brian Matusz (BAL): -5.82 (2011: 10.69 | 2012: 4.87)
4) Greg A. Harris (BOS/NYY/MON): -5.38 (1994: 7.99 | 1995: 2.61)
5) J.P. Howell (TB): -5.37 (2007: 7.59 | 2008: 2.22)
*Courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau

This is not to say Burnes will come anywhere close to the career achievements of the great Halladay, but there were plenty of signs saying that Burnes was a much better pitcher than what he showed last year. His peripherals, which included a whiff rate that rivaled Gerrit Cole’s and a strikeout rate that resembled Stephen Strasburg, made him either a bounce-back candidate or a buy-low trade candidate, depending on your perspective. This was someone who struck out 12 hitters and allowed three homers in the same five-inning start against the Cardinals last year.

But the Brewers, to their credit, stuck with him; pitching coach Chris Hook stayed in manager Craig Counsell’s ear throughout the winter and maintained that Burnes was “going to get it right.” And boy, has he ever. On top of that sub-2.00 ERA, Burnes enters his Monday start against the Cardinals tied for third among qualified National League pitchers in FanGraphs WAR (1.9), second in fielding-independent pitching (FIP), first in hits per nine innings and second in strikeout rate. Burnes has allowed only one home run across 45 1/3 innings -- one year after he allowed 17 in 49 frames.

It’s not a stretch to say he belongs in the NL Cy Young Award conversation alongside Trevor Bauer, Yu Darvish and Jacob deGrom, and it’s a staggering turnaround for a lost prospect who was sent down to Triple-A and even struggled there (8.46 ERA) last summer. But it’s also a testament to the corrective powers of velocity, spin and a willingness to change things up. Here’s how Burnes is a different pitcher for a Brewers club that will need every bit of his brilliance to sneak into October once again.

A new, more varietal Brew

Burnes had big aces in the hole compared to so many other pitchers who have had to break it all down and start anew. The first was simple arm speed: Burnes averaged 95.2 mph on his four-seam and two-seam fastballs in 2019, putting him within the top 25% of pitchers across MLB. The second was his plus-plus breaking ball: Hitters whiffed on 58% of their swings against Burnes’ slider, a video-game-esque number that dwarved any other pitcher by nearly four percentage points. Burnes knew he at least had a building block in that slide-piece.

“Right after the season last year, we had a meeting four or five days into the offseason, of what things we wanted to change, what we wanted things to look like,” Burnes told reporters just before Opening Day. “I kind of put on the table, 'Hey, the slider’s the best pitch in baseball. What can we do to make the slider even better but make the pitches around it even better?'”

But this wasn’t a simple cut-and-paste fix of making Burnes the high four-seam, low slider pitcher who fills up so many rosters these days; Burnes had already tried and failed at that. Burnes threw his four-seamer more than half the time last year, but his 99th percentile spin rate was making his ball cut instead of “ride” through the top of the zone. Simply put, his fastball resembled his slider -- and hitters teed off with a .425 average and .823 slugging percentage.

Burnes tried to straighten that fastball and chase that ride over the winter and spring hiatus, but he stumbled on something even better. Burnes found comfort in a pitch quickly going out of style -- the sinking two-seamer -- and it’s a linchpin of his new success.

“We put in a lot of work this offseason trying to find a pitch that worked the best with the slider from last year,” Burnes said Wednesday, just after holding the Tigers to one hit while striking out 11 in the Brewers’ 19-0 blowout win. “Some of the things we did with the two-seam [fastball] and developing the changeup opened some doors. It gave me a lot more options, not only to right-handers but to left-handers as well.”

Bucking the profile that his velo and spin numbers might suggest, Burnes is dominating with an old-school mix: the sinker, the cutter and the slider. The cutter and slider work a 1-2 punch away from right-handed hitters, with Burnes having the extra advantage of throwing the third-fastest cutter in baseball and creating a little extra separation from his mid-80s breaker. But since Burnes’ four-seamer also cut that way, hitters often sat on the glove side of the plate against him; he didn’t have something to challenge righties on the hands or work lefties away.

That’s where that running two-seamer now fills the void. It’s a tunneler’s dream, as Burnes’ two-seamers break the opposite way like his cutters and sliders -- with all three pitches coming in hard and tight. Burnes has almost completely scrapped that erstwhile four-seamer in the process.

“He's one of those pitchers who just never lets you feel comfortable at the plate or in the box,” said Brewers second baseman Keston Hiura, who noted that nobody was seeing Burnes well while the team was keeping fresh during the pandemic hiatus in Arizona. “He's either 95-97 [mph] going into you or 93 going away from you. It's not a comfortable at-bat.”

Burnes’ sinkers and cutters have been so good at covering each side that he’s hardly needed that “best-pitch-in-baseball” slider. Wednesday easily marked that slider’s busiest day of the season, and it helped Burnes carry a dominant no-hit bid into the fifth inning. Burnes threw the pitch 24 times, racked up 15 combined fouls, called strikes and swings-and misses and allowed just one groundout in play. That’s a scary back-pocket weapon Burnes is carrying around for righty-heavy lineups.

'He got his feelings hurt'

A pitcher can rebuild his pitch mix, but when he puts up an eight-plus ERA, the ego needs some reconstruction, too. The Brewers had to take Burnes “offline” last August after he struggled to get outs at Triple-A, and sent him to their brand new “pitching lab” in Phoenix. It was a chance for Burnes, who lives in Phoenix in the offseason, to reset. But make no mistake: this reclamation took months of work to be realized.

“Corbin got beat up, he got his feelings hurt and he made adjustments,” said Counsell. “That’s a credit to him and his stick-to-itiveness and his toughness that he was able to not only not let it beat him but really to motivate him to get better and to make the changes that were going to make him successful.

“It is a group effort, for sure; a lot of people have contributed to it. And that’s an important part of it. But most importantly, Corbin didn’t let it beat him and there’s something to be said for that.”

Struggling pitchers can look to Lucas Giolito, who transformed from his league’s worst pitcher to a Cy Young contender, and now Burnes as the latest examples of why they shouldn’t give up. The Brewers have built a reputation for never giving up in September, no matter what the standings say. And if Milwaukee makes it back to October, its belief in Burnes will be a huge reason why.