In 2013, Burnes graduated from Centennial High School in Bakersfield, California, after going 9-4 with a 2.23 ERA.
Corbin was a three-time academic honoree in high school.
To say Burnes was lightly recruited coming out of high school in California would be overstating things. Burnes describes the level of interest in him as, “St. Mary’s, one or two other Division I schools, and a bunch of NAIA schools.”
Things were bleak enough that Burnes said he felt grateful that St. Mary’s even gave him an opportunity to play. The team was coming off a 21-34 campaign in 2013.
In 2015, Corbin pitched for Orleans in the Cape Cod League. And he struck out 28 in 38 innings en route to being named the No. 17 prospect on the Cape.
“When I first got there, the biggest thing was telling myself I belonged there,” Burnes said. “That whole summer helped renew my confidence in a way, because I figured out that I belonged and could be out there with the best. And I tried to bring that confidence with me into this season as well.
June 2016: The Brewers chose Burnes in the 4th round, out of St. Marys College of California. And he signed for $536,400, via scout Joe Graham.
In 2017, Baseball America rated Corbin the 24th-best prospect in the Brewers organization. Then, before 2018 spring camps opened, they moved Burnes up to third-best prospect. And in the spring of 2019, he was #2 in the Brewers farm system, behind only 2B Keston Hiura.
2020 Season: When Burnes first reached the Majors in 2018, excitement around his debut was strong. His first season was stellar, as he worked exclusively in relief and posted a 2.61 ERA and 3.79 FIP.
Then during the offseason, he converted back to starting and the results went the opposite way. His first four starts were abysmal and he ended up back in the bullpen for a while. He stabilized a bit in the bullpen, but just wasn’t the same as in 2018. He eventually landed on the IL before being optioned back to Triple-A. He did make a few appearances with the Brewers at the end of 2019, though not in the same role. While his strikeout rate improved drastically (12.9 K/9 in 2019), the results were not there overall (8.82 ERA, 6.09 FIP, 17 home runs allowed).
Burnes worked on his approach during the offseason. Excitement built around him again as he impressed in summer camp. As the season began, early results were encouraging. He started the second game of the season against the Cubs, striking out six over 3.1 innings with just one run allowed.
After that, he moved more into a long relief role over his next few appearances, following up Brett Anderson’s starts as the first reliever out of the bullpen. In fact, in two of his games, it was a true “piggyback” role, as Anderson started the game and then Burnes finished it. Through four games, Burnes’ ERA sat at 3.38 and he already had 24 strikeouts in 16 innings. The early analysis was that he had improved, though still needed to work on a few things.
Then, on August 16, Burnes officially rejoined the Brewers’ rotation after Eric Lauer went down with an injury. Burnes started his next game on August 18, and from there it was a charge forward. In 7 starts between August 18 and September 19 (covering 40 innings), he posted a 1.13 ERA, allowed just a .161/.226/.210 batting line, and had 59 strikeouts compared to 11 walks. He became dominant and teams could not find an answer to him. He had at least seven strikeouts in six of those games, and double-digit strikeouts in three of them.
Unfortunately, his season came to an end early, as an oblique strain suffered in his last start of the season landed him on the IL. There was hope that he could pitch in the playoffs if the Brewers made it past the first round, but that never came around as the Brewers were eliminated by the Dodgers.
Despite how his 2020 season ended, his season was an undeniable success. He led the starters with a 2.11 ERA and 2.03 FIP, and he posted 88 strikeouts compared to 24 walks. His home runs allowed fell from 17 to 2), which is impressive even taking the short season into account.
Though he fell 0.1 innings short of being “qualified” in some of the average stats, his fWAR of 2.4 tied him for fifth in the league, his ERA would have been sixth, and his FIP was at the top of the league (when extending the results to a minimum of 50 IP).
He went from a player with something to prove to being a proven starter for the Brewers, making a strong 1-2 starting tandem with Brandon Woodruff. Assuming the oblique injury heals completely (which it should with plenty of time to rest this offseason), Burnes has helped set this rotation up to be one of the strongest we have seen in the last several years. (-JP-@BrewersFanJP - Oct 19, 2020)
During the 2019 offseason, Corbin decided he belonged in the Major Leagues. But he still needed to enjoy things outside of baseball, like being a good husband to his wife, Brooke, whom he credits for his success. Burnes made sure that when he was home, he was there for her.
“For me, baseball became everything," he said. "That was something I had to get away from. Baseball is still a job, and you still have fun when we are playing, but you have to be able to have a family, enjoy the other things in life. That’s kind of how things started. It was developing that separator of baseball and everyday life. Once I got to the field and started to prepare for baseball, I had a better process of going about it and getting ready for the outing or whatever it may have been. Now that I’m in a solid rotation, I’m able to have that continued work and routine of what it takes to be ready every five days.” (Ladson - mlb.com - 5/30/2021)
July 2021: Burnes was chosen for the All-Star Game.
Oct 3, 2021: It was a silver lining at the end of an uninspiring final week for the Brewers: Corbin Burnes is the first pitcher in franchise history to win his league’s ERA title.
Burnes led all of MLB with a 2.43 ERA, ahead of Dodgers teammates Max Scherzer (2.46) and Walker Buehler (2.47), the latter of whom had a chance to surpass Burnes before Rowdy Tellez and Avisaíl García hit back-to-back doubles in the fourth inning for an earned run that denied Buehler’s bid. Burnes’ teammate, Brandon Woodruff, finished fourth with a 2.56 ERA.
“However you want to say it, it’s been remarkable is what it’s been,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said of Burnes’ effort. “He’s had a historical season. He’s done things that no pitcher has ever done and it’s been a joy to watch.
“I just give Corbin so much credit on how he has built himself. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of [pitching coach] Chris Hook for his assistance in it. He had a really good year last year, he had struggles before that, but how he’s kept getting better is something that every player should take note of.” (A McCalvy - MLB.com - Oct 3, 2021)
|Birth City:||Bakersfield, CA|
|Draft:||Brewers #4 - 2016 - Out of St. Mary's College of California|
Burnes has an explosive 91-95 mph FASTBALL that has natural cutting action to both sides of the plate. He has an 84-86 mph SLIDER with sharp tilt, a 60 grade that eats up righthanded hitters. He has a 77-80 mph CURVEBALL that he easily commands to either side of the dish. He has a rarely-used 85-88 mph split-CHANGEUP with good run, showing splitter-like action.
Corbin doesn't throw his changeup often. Instead he prefers to change speeds with his curve and mix in a fringe-average slider.
Some worry that Corbin throws with maximum effort and that his arm action is too quick, which landed him in the bullpen when the Brewers called him up in June 2018. He has maintained his velocity deep into starts and certainly has the frame to handle a solid workload.
Out of the bullpen, Burnes was a nightmare for hitters with his 4-pitch repertoire.
However, Burnes, who still has rookie status, will return to a starting role in 2019 and will be given every opportunity to win a job in the Brewers’ rotation. He has made a strong impression already, with both his talent level and ability to remain calm under pressure.
“Since Day One, the thing about Corbin to me is the way he attacks the strike zone,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Guys are going to get hits, but he has just attacked the strike zone relentlessly every time he goes out there.
“That’s a sign of confidence and belief, and also a sign he’s just not going to be intimidated by the big things. And he has shown it every time he has been out there.” (Tom Haudricourt - Baseball America - 11/16/2018)
2018 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball 61.7% of the time, his Sinker less than 1%; Change less than 1%; Slider 31.5%; and Curve 6.6% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 95.9 mph, Sinker 96.5, Change 88.3, Slider 87.1, and Curve 80.4 mph.
2019 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball 52.5% of the time, his Sinker 4.3%; Change 4.2%; Slider 31%; and Curve 8.1% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 95.6 mph, Sinker 96.1, Change 91, Slider 88.2, and Curve 81.6 mph.
2020 Season Pitch Usage: 4-seam Fastball 7.1% of the time, his Sinker 30.8%; Change 11%; Slider 12.6%; Curve 8.7%; and Cutter 29.7% of the time. Average velocity: 4-seam 96 mph, Sinker 96.3, Change 89.3, Slider 86.8, Curve 81.5, and Cutter 93.3 mph.
In 2017, Burnes modified his delivery by squaring up to the plate and allowing his lower half to drive toward the plate. At Biloxi, he even switched to a traditional windup instead of a modified stretch. (Spring 2018)
Corbin repeats his compact, athletic delivery, keeping his legs underneath him. He began incorporating using his lower half into his delivery.
But in 2017, Burnes shifted his delivery from a modified stretch to a more traditional windup. And that allowed his velocity to bump up a notch.
He has impressive command of his main three pitches. He pitches to his strengths, and he pitches with a purpose, executing any of his pitches in any count.
Burnes maintains his velocity late into games.
Corbin doesn’t pitch with particularly knockout stuff, but he commands slightly above-average stuff with late movement.
In 2017, Corbin was named the Brewers Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
That season, he allowed one earned run or fewer in 19 of his 26 starts. He finished fourth in the minors with a 0.95 WHIP and eighth with a .200 opponent average.
May 6, 2018: Burnes posted a career-high 13 strikeouts over seven innings in which he allowed one earned run on four hits. He threw a season-high 92 pitches (69 strikes) in the outing, ultimately taking a no-decision as the Sky Sox fell to Oklahoma City, 3-2.
In addition to being a career high, Burnes' 13 strikeouts fell one shy of the franchise record, established by John Thomson in 1997.
2018 Season: Corbin has big stuff with a fastball that averages 95 mph in relief and a swing-and-miss slider that overtook his curveball as his best secondary. His stuff plays in the strike zone and the Brewers have tasked him with getting it to play out of the zone, too—namely getting swings at pitches on the edges or off the plate.
The Brewers still view Burnes as a starter and he has the stuff, control and durability for the rotation, but his changeup is a work in progress and his high-spin curveball has not played well in the majors. (Kyle Glaser - Baseball America - 10/19/2018)
He maintains his stuff deep into starts with plus control and can be a groundball machine when he keeps his fastball low in the zone. The Brewers love Burnes’ mound presence. He has conviction in his pitches.
Corbin talks about his slider: “Coming out of high school I was mainly fastball-curveball-changeup. When I got to college, my coach approached me and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about throwing a slider?’ I was all for it. My fastball had a little bit of cutting action, so if we could kind of extend that cut, it would make for a good deception pitch off my fastball. “I’ve tinkered with grips a little over the years. What I’ve come to is basically … it’s like my four-seam fastball, but with a little pressure adjustment. Originally it was going to be more of an extended cutter — we were going to try to keep it hard — but the more I threw it, the more it turned into a slider. That was more natural for me.
“I didn’t originally know what was going to work best. Again, I was a freshman in college. But I’d always watched guys like Mariano Rivera and Kenley Jansen, and they had that cutter. I thought that if I could throw hard, and have that cutting action, maybe I could dominate. That was my original thought. It simply turned into more of this slider, with depth.
“The way I throw it changed a little bit in spring training of 2017. I switched the grip. My junior year of college, and my first year in pro ball, it was more off my curveball than my fastball. Now it’s the same grip as my fastball, but with the extra pressure from my middle finger. That’s the only difference.
“I remember seeing an interview on TV and he basically threw his slider with a fastball grip. I thought, ‘OK, how about if I just throw a fastball, add a little grip pressure, and see what happens.’ The velocity went up from when I threw it more like a curveball. Instead of being in the 83-85 mph range, now it was 86 to 90-91. It turned into the slider I have today.” (David Laurila - FANGRAPHS - April 1, 2019)
STRUGGLES IN 2019
April 17, 2019: No pitcher has ever surrendered three home runs in more than three consecutive starts, and Brewers manager Craig Counsell wasn’t about to let Corbin Burnes be the first. Burnes served up two more homers on fastballs before Counsell pulled the plug with his starter facing a five-run deficit in the fourth inning of the Brewers’ 6-3 loss to the Cardinals at Miller Park. Even with the starting rotation stretched thin by Freddy Peralta’s stint on the 10-day injured list, Counsell sounded ready to temporarily remove 24-year-old Burnes from the rotation.
“I think we’re going to have a longer conversation this time,” said Counsell, “and try to figure out the best way to get him on track.”
It doesn’t take an advanced degree in analytics to see Burnes’ problem, but that education might come in handy to come up with a solution for a prospect whose stuff is too good to be pitching so poorly. Burnes has yielded 11 home runs in his first four Major League starts while pitching 17.2 innings. That’s on pace for 82 home runs in a 30-start season. The record, you ask? The dubious Major League mark for home runs allowed belongs to a Hall of Famer, Bert Blyleven. He gave up 50 in 1986, but also pitched 271.2 innings, and had to navigate lineups that included designated hitters.
The National League record for home runs allowed is 48, Jose Lima of the 2000 Astros. The Brewers record belongs to Braden Looper, who gave up 39 homers in 2009.
“It’s tough, but you have to keep working. It’s not just going to come,” Burnes said. “I hope [to remain in the rotation]. I’m going to come in every single day and keep putting in the work, keep doing what I can to get better. Frankly, I haven’t done my job these first four starts.”
The Brewers have thus far professed patience because Burnes is a four-pitch prospect, a former organizational player of the year, with as high a ceiling as any pitcher Milwaukee has advanced through its Minor League chain in years.
So, they have let him pitch through his early-season struggles. Burnes, however, has regressed with each start. His game scores, a metric devised by Bill James to assess starting pitchers, has dropped each time he’s taken the mound. So have his strikeouts, from 12 in his season debut to six on April 6 against the Cubs to three apiece on April 12 at the Angels and against the Cardinals.
The problem lies in Burnes’ fastball. Ten of the 11 home runs off him this season have been on fastballs; nine four-seamers and one two-seamer. Eight of the Cardinals’ nine hits off Burnes came on four-seam fastballs. Four left the bat at north of 100 mph, according to Statcast, including Marcell Ozuna’s 103.2 mph home run leading off the second inning and Matt Carpenter’s 108.9 mph home run with one out in the fourth. There were other loud outs on fastballs, illustrating how close Burnes came to a true blow-up start. Carpenter’s 106.4 mph lineout at right fielder Christian Yelich ended the second inning with two runners in scoring position, and Jose Martinez’s 103.4 mph double play grounder to shortstop Orlando Arcia helped prevent a big inning in the third.
“We keep getting beat by the heater,” Burnes said. “We keep leaving them over the plate, and they’re getting crushed.
Before you say, “throw something else,” it’s not that simple, Burnes said. He has a sensational slider, but his fastball will always be his best pitch. Beyond that, throwing breaking balls early in counts risks falling into counts that make it even more obvious for hitters that a fastball is coming.
“Look, I don’t care how well you’re made up. This is a tough stretch to go through and we have to acknowledge that,” Counsell said. “This would shake anybody. But Corbin is a tough kid and he is a competitive kid, and he will rebound from this. We have to make sure we figure out the right way to allow him to do that. Give him the best way to do that. “He’s a really important pitcher for us, and he’s got stuff to be a heck of a pitcher. We’re just not seeing it right now, so we have to figure out the best way to get that.” (A McCalvy - MLB.com - April 17, 2019)
August 20, 2019: The Brewers have temporarily taken Corbin “offline” in the Minor Leagues in an effort to find new answers for his season-long struggles. Burnes was transferred from Triple-A San Antonio to Double-A Biloxi, but he actually traveled to American Family Fields of Phoenix to work in the Brewers’ state-of-the-art pitching lab. The facility was still under construction during Spring Training 2019, but is now fully functional, said Karl Mueller, the Brewers' senior vice president of player personnel.
The expectation is that Burnes will return to the mound in the Minors before season’s end.
“He’s a guy we definitely believe in,” Mueller said. “The stuff is as good as anybody we have here, even. Sometimes, it just helps to give a guy a breather, take a break, go offline and work on different things to help him get back to where he wants to be.” (McCalvy - mlb.com)
Sept 3, 2019: Burnes is back from the Brewers’ pitching lab, hoping to end the season on a positive note. The question is whether he will get to pitch. The team recalled Burnes from Triple-A San Antonio with the priority of continuing the side work he began in Arizona at the Brewers’ state-of-the-art sports science lab. Burnes spent two weeks there under the watchful eye of dozens of cameras and sensors, which gathered data to help answer the question that dominated Burnes’ season: Why did he take such a step back this year?
“It’s nice to get up here and hopefully get a couple innings,” Burnes said. “[I want to] prove to them, like I’ve done myself the last two weeks, that I’m still the same guy, still the same pitcher [who played a prominent bullpen role in 2018]. I’ve just got to go out there and do what I do best.
Part of the puzzle is that much of the advanced data available to the Brewers, including the out-of-this-world spin rate on Burnes’ pitches, was actually better than last year, suggesting his results should have improved this year.
“I think that’s part of the reason why they wanted me to get back into the lab, to see if there is anything mechanical,” he said. “As far as what they saw in the lab and what I saw as far as numbers-wise, basically looked the same as it was [last year]. For me, it’s trusting myself. For me, I think that was a big thing to be able to get back on track.” (A McCalvy - MLB.com - Sept 3, 2019)
In 2019, Burnes had as bad a year as a pitcher can have. He allowed 11 home runs in 17.2 innings before the end of April. He ranked in MLB's 22nd percentile, according to Statcast, in exit velocity and in the bottom 20 percent in hard-hit percentage, expected weighted on-base percentage, expected batting average and expected slugging percentage. He was demoted first to Triple-A, then sent to the Brewers' pitching lab in Phoenix to figure out what was wrong.
So, how is he on a list of future aces?
He's only 25, and his stuff is ace-caliber. Burnes' 95.2 mph average fastball puts him in the 80th percentile, and his spin numbers are elite. Of the 392 pitchers who threw at least 200 four-seam fastballs last season, Burnes average spin rate of 2,656 rpm ranked second. And of 229 pitchers who threw at least 200 sliders, Burnes' average spin rate of 2,850 rpm was 12th. The tools are there to be a top starting pitcher. –Adam McCalvy
- Oct 6, 2020: Following a season in which the Brewers made a third consecutive postseason appearance, the local chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America awarded Burnes the Brewers' MVP—the first pitcher since CC Sabathia to win that honor.
After having an 8.82 ERA in 2019, Burnes underwent LASIK eye surgery and revamped his arsenal during the offseason before emerging as a NL Cy Young contender in the shortened 2020 season. He went 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 59.2 innings over 12 games (nine starts).
Burnes finished second in strikeouts per nine innings (13.3) and fourth in ERA among NL pitchers who worked at least 50 innings, but a left oblique injury sustained in Burnes’ final regular-season start left him one out shy of the 60 innings he needed to rank among the qualifiers for the ERA title. (A McCalvy - MLB.com - Oct 6, 2020)
2020 Season: On the heels of an 8.82 ERA over 49 innings in 2019, Burnes tweaked his repertoire last season and became one of MLB’s most effective hurlers, earning a sixth-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. The righthander was especially dominant in his final eight starts, allowing one or no earned runs in six of them and recording a 1.65 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and 64 strikeouts over 43.2 innings. (Thomas Harrigan - Jan. 3, 2021)
April 19, 2021: One factor in Burnes’ transformation from one of the NL’s most hittable pitchers in 2019 into a Cy Young contender in 2020 and 2021 is so obvious, you might have missed it. He abandoned the windup after 2019 and has been pitching exclusively out of the stretch.
Burnes explained the reasoning behind the change ahead of his scheduled start against the Padres, offering a glimpse into the delicate process of developing an ace.
“We made that adjustment after the 2019 season,” Burnes said. “It was just more about trying to get my mechanics as repeatable as possible. For me, the windup had lots of moving parts and a lot of things that made it tougher to kind of sync everything up. So that was kind of the easiest fix, is make everything as simple as possible.
“The other side of it is your biggest pitches in a game are thrown out of the stretch. So if you were to happen to go three or four solid innings in a windup and all the sudden you get a guy on base when it's a 0-0 ballgame and your pitches count, all of a sudden you have to feel comfortable in a stretch position. For me, it was just, ‘Pitch one, let's just do it all out of the stretch and get the most comfortable there because that's where you're going to make your biggest pitches in the game.’” (A McCalvy - MLB.com - April 19, 2021)
April 20, 2021: Burnes set a record for starting pitchers by reaching 40 strikeouts without a walk to start the season.
May 13, 2021: Burnes set the record for the most strikeouts without a walk in any stretch of any season since 1893. He entered a game against the Cardinals with 49 straight strikeouts since his last walk, and tallied 9 Ks before walking a batter—his very first of the season. He broke the league record with 58 straight.
May 19: Royals 6, Brewers 4—Nine-strikeout starts. Burnes has struck out at least nine batters in all seven of his starts, putting him in some good company. According to Brewers PR, Pedro Martinez holds the record (since 1906) for nine-plus strikeout games to begin a season, with nine such games for Boston at the start of the 1999 campaign. Burnes and Cleveland's Shane Bieber are currently tied for second all time with seven such starts, followed by five such starts for Randy Johnson in 1999 and Nolan Ryan in 1991.
Corbin is one of reasons the Brewers have one of the Majors' top starting pitching staffs. Burnes has an arsenal of pitches to keep hitters off balance, including a curveball, a slider and a cutter, his go-to pitch. “Everything feels good, body feels good,” Burnes said. “Overall, I think I’ve done a really good job of executing pitches. The command has been good. It has been the key focus for me throughout the season.”
Burnes has been consistent on the mound dating back to the 2020 season. He said he has been successful because of the work he put in when it comes to the mental side of the game. He always had the stuff and the ability to pitch in the big leagues, but he had to start putting things in perspective. (Ladson - mlb.com - 5/30/2021)
August 11, 2021: Corbin matched an AL/NL record by striking out 10 consecutive Cubs during one particularly dominant stretch of a 15-strikeout, eight-inning masterpiece at Wrigley Field, where he joined Tom Seaver and Aaron Nola in MLB’s record books.
- Sept. 11, 2021: Burnes combined with reliever Josh Hader to pitch baseball’s record ninth no-hitter this season, breaking a mark set when pitchers began throwing overhand in 1884 as the Brewers beat the Cleveland Indians 3-0.
Burnes (10-4) struck out 14 with 115 pitches over eight innings, taking a perfect game into the seventh while overpowering the Indians, who were no-hit for the third time in 2021. This time is was by Burnes — who has become a Cy Young contender as the Brewers run away with the NL Central — and Hader, one of the game’s top closers.
2021 Season: No starter with 100 innings pitched had a lower ERA than Burnes this year. None had a lower RA9, either; if you’re looking for a pitcher who stopped opponents from scoring, you couldn’t find a better ace than Burnes. He didn’t do it in a cavernous home stadium, either; American Family Field (ugh), where he made 15 of his 28 starts, is a marginal hitter’s park, particularly when it comes to home runs.
About those home runs: it’s comical how few Burnes allowed. The seven he surrendered work out to 0.38 homers per nine innings, the best mark among starters with 100 innings pitched (limiting statistics to qualifying pitchers in this season of light workloads undersells how thoroughly Burnes trounced the competition). Only Miami’s Trevor Rogers came close — and among other Cy Young contenders, Burnes sticks out like a sore thumb:
With a respectful tip of the cap to Antonio Senzatela, who calls Coors Field home, Burnes suppressed home runs better than anyone else in baseball, and even Rogers, with the benefit of fewer innings (more randomness) in a pitcher’s park, couldn’t keep up.
Pitching is about more than a low ERA and few home runs allowed, though that’s a lot of the game. Strikeouts have always been the mark of a great pitcher, and as the league strikes out more and more, running the highest strikeout rate in the game has gotten progressively harder. As recently as 2010, Jon Lester’s 26.1% strikeout rate led baseball. This year, that would be 18th. If you want to stand out these days, you need to strike out a lot of hitters.
Despite the tougher competition, Burnes stands alone here as well. He’s the major league strikeout rate champion this year with a 35.6% mark. Excluding 2020, that’s the fifth-best full-season mark since 1999, and you might have heard of the guys in front of him: 2019 Gerrit Cole, 1999 Pedro Martinez, 2001 Randy Johnson, and 2017 Chris Sale. Sure, a rising strikeout tide lifts all starters, but Burnes still stands ahead of the rest of his 2021 competitors.
The least home runs, the most strikeouts — what are you going to tell me next, that Burnes walked the fewest batters in baseball too? Not quite, but it’s only by a narrow margin. Burnes walked 5.2% of the batters he faced this year — 11th-best among starters who pitched 100 innings. Even if we limit it to qualified pitchers, he ranks third, behind Nathan Eovaldi and Julio Urías. What a bum! He didn’t even lead the league in all three FIP categories — though he might have if it weren’t for a relatively wild September, where he walked 7.2% of the batters he faced.
It’s easy, if you want to, to paint Burnes’ season as a triumph of FIP. Fielding Independent Pitching refers to the outcomes that fielders don’t influence — strikeouts, walks, HBPs, and home runs. As we covered above, Burnes stands out in all three categories, which makes his place on the 1969-present FIP leaderboard unsurprising:
Martinez’s season is widely considered to be the greatest since the mound was lowered. It’s hardly surprising that Burnes couldn’t match up to him, but in the class of “every season other than the greatest of all time,” he more than holds his own. Given that Martinez’s 1999 season isn’t eligible for the 2021 NL Cy Young award, that’s hardly relevant.
The most strikeouts. The lowest ERA. The fewest home runs allowed, and nearly the fewest walks allowed. Burnes has an overwhelming rate-based argument — none of his closest competitors bested him in even a single category. Scherzer came close — with a near-identical walk rate and a 34.1% strikeout rate that was second in baseball — but allowed 23 home runs instead of seven, an HR/9 mark three times higher than Burnes’s. (Ben Clemens)
Nov. 17, 2021: Burnes won the 2021 NL Cy Young Award. 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 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 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.” (A McCalvy - MLB.com - Nov 17, 2021)
- As of the start of the 2022 season, Corbin had a career record of 23-11 with a 3.39 ERA, having allowed 257 hits and 30 home runs in 313 innings.
- Burnes has an excellent move to first base.
July 15-Aug. 13, 2019: Corbin was on the IL with right shoulder irritation
Sept 25, 2020: Corbin was on the IL with left oblique strain.
Feb 19, 2021: Oblique injuries can linger, but Burnes was fortunate that the issue that prematurely ended his 2020 season on Sept. 24 in St. Louis was on the mild side.
“Mid-Octoberish, I was back in here getting after it again,” said Burnes. “Obviously, the start of the offseason looked a little different because I was still recovering from the oblique, but after about a week off in the offseason, [he was able to] get back in here. There was a week of no throwing, just straight rehab, and then I was able to start a normal throwing program pretty early on. Normal throwing, normal working out, so it was a pretty normal offseason as far as a rehab and recovery standpoint.”
- April 30-May 13, 2021: Burnes was on the IL after testing positive for Covid-19. Burnes was asymptomatic.