Reinvention key as Ray, Burnes win Cy Young

November 18th, 2021

Two years ago, right-hander Corbin Burnes was, as he put it, “kicked in the teeth” by a 2019 season in which he posted an 8.82 ERA in 32 appearances for the Brewers, primarily in relief. And just last year, left-hander Robbie Ray posted a combined 6.62 ERA for the D-backs and Blue Jays, with the highest rate of walks per nine innings of any pitcher with at least 50 innings.

So the Cy Young Awards announced Wednesday night on MLB Network were not just affirmation of the terrific 2021 seasons turned in by the Brewers’ Burnes and the Blue Jays’ Ray but inspiration for any player down on his luck. National League Cy Young winner Burnes and American League winner Ray clawed their way from the bottom to the summit of their sport, and now they’ll have the hardware to prove it.

“It’s perseverance,” said Ray, “being able to push through those adversities.”

Said Burnes: “Baseball is always evolving. As a baseball player, you have to evolve with the game.”

Whereas the 30-year-old Ray was a near-unanimous selection on the AL ballot (just one BBWAA voter gave a first-place vote to the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, who finished second ahead of the White Sox’s Lance Lynn), the 27-year-old Burnes’ win was razor thin. NL voters were evenly split when choosing between Burnes’ resounding rate stats in 167 innings (the smallest innings total for a Cy Young-winning starter in a non-shortened season) and the workhorse success of the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler, who threw an MLB-high 213 1/3 innings.

Burnes and Wheeler each received 12 first-place votes. But Burnes had 14 second-place votes to Wheeler’s nine to finish 10 points ahead of him (151-141), with the Nationals/Dodgers’ Max Scherzer finishing third with six first-place votes and 113 voting points.

The 10-point margin of victory for Burnes over Wheeler was the closest in the NL and tied for the fourth-closest overall since the ballot expanded from three to five pitchers in 2010. It was just the second time ever that the first-place and second-place finisher had the same number of first-place votes (winner Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers and second-place finisher Tom Seaver of the Reds each received eight in 1981).

Ray’s win marked the fifth time a Blue Jays pitcher has won the Cy Young and the first since the late Hall of Famer Roy Halladay claimed the honor in 2003.

Burnes became the Brewers’ first Cy Young winner since Pete Vuckovich in 1982 (Rollie Fingers had become Milwaukee’s first Cy Young recipient in 1981). The only clubs with a longer Cy scarcity are the Rangers, who have never had a Cy Young winner, dating back to their formation in 1961, and the Orioles, whose last winner was Steve Stone in 1980. Of course, Burnes knows about ending Milwaukee droughts, having pitched the first eight innings of the club’s first no-hitter since Juan Nieves in 1987, when he and Josh Hader combined to shut out Cleveland on Sept. 11.

Ray’s win marked the fifth time a Blue Jays pitcher has won the Cy Young and the first since the late Hall of Famer Roy Halladay claimed the honor in 2003.

Little fanfare accompanied the Brewers’ fourth-round selection of Burnes in the 2016 Draft or the Blue Jays’ midseason trade acquisition and subsequent offseason re-signing of Ray last year. But now plenty of pomp accompanies two pitchers who evolved within their professional careers to earn this honor.

When Ray came back to Toronto on a modest one-year, $8 million contract last winter, he was still considered a project whose electric stuff was compromised by his wildness.

But in his age-29 season, Ray put all the pieces together. His 2.84 ERA was the best among qualifiers in the AL, and his 193 1/3 innings, 32 starts, 154 ERA+ and 1.045 WHIP were also tops in the AL.

“I expect a lot of myself and expect to be in this position,” he said. “Going into this season, it was an expectation of mine to be a great pitcher, to be an elite pitcher. Year in and year out, if you don’t have that drive, that fight to be an elite pitcher, you’re selling yourself short.”

Ray struck out an MLB-best 248 batters, but his season can perhaps best be defined by his ability to lower his walk rate from 7.8 per nine to just 2.4.

Now, Ray is just the ninth pitcher ever -- but the second in as many years -- to win the Cy Young heading into free agency (Trevor Bauer won the NL Cy Young last year before leaving the Reds for the Dodgers). Ray’s 2022 destination is not yet known, but no matter the outcome, he has made his mark north of the border. His 6.62 ERA in 2020 now stands as the highest ever for a pitcher who won the Cy Young the following year, surpassing Cliff Lee’s 2007 mark of 6.29 ahead of his 2008 win with Cleveland.

The key to Burnes’ career turnaround was eschewing a four-seam fastball that wasn’t working to focus instead on more of a sinker-slider combo in 2020, and then increased usage of a cutter that has become one of the nastiest pitches in baseball.

“In 2019, the four-seam fastball wasn’t great,” Burnes said. “It’s tough to try to pitch in the zone with a curveball and slider all the time. I had to find something I could get strikes with and get ahead in the count. Initially it started as trying to throw a hard slider for a strike. But the more I threw it and the harder I threw it, it morphed into the cutter you’re now seeing.”

In 2021, Burnes threw the 95 mph cutter 52.3% of the time and used it to limit hitters to a .328 slugging percentage. The rest of his arsenal played off that pitch, and the entire package proved to be efficient and effective.

Burnes’ season began with him striking out a record 58 batters before issuing his first walk. He wound up going 11-5 with a 2.43 ERA in 167 innings across 28 starts and was the Major League leader in ERA, strikeout rate (35.6), strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.88), Fielding Independent Pitching (1.63) and barrel rate (2.9%). His FIP was the second lowest of the Divisional Era (since 1969), trailing only Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez’s 1.39 mark in 1999.

Though Burnes’ 167 innings pitched are not up to the usual Cy standard (Blake Snell’s 180 2/3 innings in 2018 had previously been the fewest for a Cy Young winning starter in a non-shortened season), they are largely a product of the times. Burnes missed two weeks early in the season after testing positive for COVID-19, the Brewers used a six-man rotation to keep their pitchers fresh after the shortened 2020 season, and only four pitchers in the Majors in 2021 -- including the runner-up Wheeler -- reached the vaunted 200-inning mark.

Ultimately, enough voters were won over by Burnes’ rate stats -- including that absurd strikeout-to-walk ratio -- to overlook the innings disparity.

“I figured from the end of the season to now that it was going to be a close vote,” Burnes said. “Everyone’s Cy Young case was different based on the season they had. No surprise it was a close one.”