Two years ago at this early point in the season, Corbin Burnes was in the process of pitching his way out of the Milwaukee Brewers’ starting rotation.
Unable to keep his fastball in the ballpark, Burnes allowed 11 home runs in his first four starts of 2019, covering only 17⅔ innings, while posting a 10.70 earned run average. It was decided he needed a timeout, and Burnes’ season devolved into a hot mess in which he went up and down from the minors, seeing action only in relief for the Brewers.
When all was said and done, Burnes finished with a 1-5 record and 8.82 ERA over 32 outings, making some wonder exactly what his future might be on Milwaukee’s staff. To his credit, Burnes used that dismal experience as motivation to remake himself, physically and mentally, and reported to spring camp in 2020 a different pitcher.
Burnes scrapped the erratic four-seamer that got belted out of the park too often and went more with a sinker and cutter, to go with the wicked slider and effective curveball he already featured. He also started throwing a changeup, particularly to left-handed hitters, giving them something else to think about.
The results were dramatic during the pandemic-shortened season. Burnes went 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA in 12 games (nine starts), with a whopping 88 strikeouts in 59⅔ innings and .174 opponents batting average.
Because he had to exit his final outing in St. Louis prematurely with an oblique strain, Burnes fell one-third of an inning shy of qualifying among National League ERA leaders. Therefore, outside of Milwaukee, his amazing turnaround went somewhat unrecognized at the end of the 60-game schedule – he finished a distant sixth in the NL Cy Young Award voting.
Burnes was not satisfied, however. He continued to work with pitching coach Chris Hook on fine-tuning his pitches, making them razor-sharp and tweaking the grip on his cutter, which has become a devastating pitch because of the combination of velocity (96 mph) and late break.
“I’ve always been a guy, just how my arm works and mechanically how we’ve done some things, I’ve always been able to spin the ball really well,” the 26-year-old right-hander explained. “That’s kind of been my calling card. The slider, the curveball, I’ve always been able to spin the ball really well.
“So, even throwing a four-seam fastball, in the past it’s always had a little cutting action, too. In ’18, were able to get away with it (7-0, 2.61 ERA in 30 relief outings in his major-league debut). In ’19, it was one of those things where I just didn’t have command of it. I could throw it in the strike zone, but I didn’t know where it was going to be.
“That was something that sprung up kind of late when we were going through the process of going more to the sinker and slider. It kind of dawned on me one day, ‘When I throw this four-seamer with cutting action, guys are swinging and missing at it.’ Not entirely on purpose. It just kind of happened.
“So, with the few things we cleaned up, the few ball positioning things in the hand, we were able to take it and basically it’s a cutter. When I go out and try to throw it, ideally, I’m thinking through the process of just trying to throw a four-seam fastball. The way everything sets up now, it has the cut to it. That’s why it’s become such an easy pitch.”
Easy for Burnes to throw. Not easy for batters to hit. Burnes has taken his game to a new level in his first three starts this season, resulting in fantasy-league numbers.
Over 18⅓ innings, Burnes has allowed a mere four hits – one, one and two, respectively – with one run allowed, no walks and 30 strikeouts. It was the combination of no walks and 30 strikeouts that made manager Craig Counsell marvel after Burnes blanked Chicago over six innings Wednesday in a 7-0 victory.
“That’s got to be pretty historic to start a season,” Counsell said. “That’s an incredible stat. That stat right there says everything, I think.”
Burnes indeed is on the verge of rewriting the MLB history book. St. Louis veteran right-hander Adam Wainwright holds the record for a starting pitcher with 35 strikeouts in 2013 before issuing his first walk. The only other starter to get to 30 strikeouts without a walk was the New York Mets’ Noah Syndegaard, who reached 31 in 2017.
Burnes is the only pitcher since 1901 to get to 30 strikeouts with no walks in his first three outings, however. He’s also the only pitcher over that span to put together three consecutive starts of at least six innings with two or fewer base-runners.
Three starts do not a season make, but Burnes has been nearly superhuman thus far, posting a 0.49 ERA, .067 opponents batting average and 48.4% strikeout rate. His repertoire is devastating, as evidenced Wednesday when he recorded strikeouts on all five of his pitches – fastball, cutter, slider, curve and changeup.
“These guys look foolish up there sometimes,” Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw said. “And he’s done it every single time through the rotation so far. It’s pretty special to watch. His command has been incredible. Both sides of the plate, all different pitches.”
It indeed has been remarkable to watch a pitcher who worked so hard to put a brutal 2019 behind him see it all come together in such compelling fashion. Burnes was asked what his biggest takeaway has been from his first three outings.
“We’ve been able to stay under control,” he said, referring to keeping the proper pace and rhythm on the mound. “When things started to go a little awry last year, we kind of got sped up, started to lose it a little bit.
“So, this year, that’s kind of been the main focus. ‘Hey, early on, find that effort level that we need, find that level of calmness, and go through my routines and my breathing and kind of staying under control.’ Mentally, I’ve been locked in now for 18 innings.”
You might have noticed that Burnes often says “we,” not “I,” when referring to his work on the mound. He believes in sharing credit with his catcher, his pitching coach, anyone who has a part in his success. He views game planning as a collaborative effort in which everyone contributes to the result.
But make no mistake about it. Burnes deserves the loudest applause for his remarkable transformation. Two years ago, he was a hot mess. Now, he’s simply on fire.