Corbin Burnes’ Masterful Season Deserves a Cy Young Finish by Ben Clemens October 4, 2021 Saturday afternoon, Corbin Burnes made several uncharacteristic missteps. He walked Max Muncy on five pitches, only the 34th walk he’d issued all year. The next batter, Justin Turner, deposited a 3-1 cutter into the left field stands for a three-run home run, only the seventh Burnes had allowed all season. He pitched another inning without incident, then — back in the lead in the ERA race after briefly falling behind Max Scherzer — came out of the game for good, his regular season now complete. That ineffective outing might worry Brewers fans for the playoffs, but it also emphasized how spectacular the rest of his year has been. Surrendering a walk and a home run? It happens to everyone — batters hit 5,944 homers this season, third-most in history, and walked roughly 9% of the time they came to the plate. But it doesn’t happen to Burnes — and that’s why he deserves to win the NL Cy Young this year. There’s no single criteria for the most outstanding pitcher in the National League, but in my eyes, Burnes has claims on several axes, and no real warts. More than that, his 2021 season is a towering achievement, one that we’ll hear about in 20 years when we talk about the best pitching seasons in history. Let’s start with something simple: the ERA crown. 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: HR/9 Leaders, 2021 Starters Player IP HR HR/9 HR to match Corbin Burnes 167 7 0.38 — Trevor Rogers 133 6 0.41 1 Logan Webb 148.1 9 0.55 4 Zack Wheeler 213.1 16 0.68 6 Antonio Senzatela 156.2 12 0.69 6 Lance McCullers Jr. 162.1 13 0.72 7 Nathan Eovaldi 182.1 15 0.74 7 Adrian Houser 142.1 12 0.76 8 Charlie Morton 185.2 16 0.78 8 Framber Valdez 134.2 12 0.80 8 That “HR to match” column denotes how many homers Burnes would have to give up — without recording another out — to fall behind that player in HR/9. 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: Best FIP Seasons, ’69-present Player Year FIP ERA Pedro Martinez 1999 1.39 2.07 Corbin Burnes 2021 1.63 2.43 Dwight Gooden 1984 1.69 2.60 Clayton Kershaw 2014 1.81 1.77 Tom Seaver 1971 1.93 1.76 Jacob deGrom 2018 1.99 1.70 Clayton Kershaw 2015 1.99 2.13 Matt Harvey 2013 2.00 2.27 Steve Carlton 1972 2.01 1.97 Shane Bieber 2020 2.07 1.63 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. If you want to make a case against Burnes, it can only be about volume. After all, he led the league in ERA and RA9, even disregarding the historically dominant peripheral numbers. It’s definitely true that Burnes carried a lighter workload than some of his closest competitors: Cy Young Candidates, IP and WAR Player IP ERA FIP WAR rWAR Corbin Burnes 167 2.43 1.63 7.5 6.3 Zack Wheeler 213.1 2.78 2.59 7.3 6.7 Walker Buehler 207.2 2.47 3.15 5.5 7.4 Max Scherzer 179.1 2.46 2.97 5.4 6.7 Brandon Woodruff 179.1 2.56 2.96 4.7 6.4 Given that his ERA lead is less commanding than his FIP-based margin, that puts Burnes in a pack with the rest of his competitors, rather than alone out front. If you’re subscribing purely to a WAR-based evaluation of pitchers, that leaves Burnes and Wheeler in a rough tie at the top, assuming a blend between FIP-based and RA9-based WAR. Personally, I don’t think that WAR is the proper framework for a Cy Young vote, and I don’t even think it should be controversial. If Burnes had pitched another 20 innings of exactly league-average baseball, his WAR would increase. That’s just how it works — league average is better than replacement level, and every inning of work where you beat that low baseline accrues value. But an extra 0.2 WAR in exchange for a much higher ERA — 2.62 in this hypothetical case — wouldn’t flatter Burnes’s case at all. It’s fairly clear to me that adding average innings to a Cy Young level pitcher should make their case worse, not better. Given that, I prefer to look at innings pitched as more tiebreaker than criteria. Is there some minimum bar to clear? Absolutely! If Burnes had pitched only 120 innings with his current rate numbers, I don’t think you could credibly have him in the award conversation. At that level, he’d fall far short of the bar when it comes to total contributions, enough so that his 2021 season wouldn’t feel like a full year’s work. This is clearly not that. Twenty-eight starts doesn’t fall far short of a 32-start full season. Burnes missed two turns due to a COVID diagnosis earlier this year, and the Brewers have used a six-man rotation more often than not this year, which works out to roughly one fewer start every two months. You could look at each pitcher’s contributions relative to average rather than to replacement level if you preferred to account for playing time that way — again, it’s not my preferred method. Here, Burnes is again in the thick of things when it comes to run prevention, and ahead of the pack if you blend our two versions of WAR (or WAA): Cy Young Candidates, IP and WAA Player IP ERA FIP fWAA rWAA Blend Corbin Burnes 167 2.43 1.63 5.8 4.6 5.2 Zack Wheeler 213.1 2.78 2.59 5.1 4.5 4.8 Walker Buehler 207.2 2.47 3.15 3.4 5.3 4.4 Max Scherzer 179.1 2.46 2.97 3.6 4.9 4.2 Brandon Woodruff 179.1 2.56 2.96 2.9 4.6 3.7 I still think this framework misses the point. If Burnes threw 20 more innings of 4 ERA baseball, he’d improve his marks relative to average — and again, would look worse as a Cy Young candidate. Burnes has pretty clearly been the most outstanding pitcher in baseball when he pitches — again, he has the ERA title, strikeout title, home run title, and missed the walk title by very little. Whether you care about the runs that actually scored or the events that he exerts the greatest control over, he’s been the best in the business. Doing it over 28 starts of 5.96 innings per start — as opposed to 33 starts of 6.29 innings per start, the numbers Walker Buehler has put up — doesn’t sound like much of a difference to me at all. If you accept that “best” makes more sense as a rate judgment than a celebration of counting statistics, Burnes is a slam-dunk candidate. Even if you don’t, though — even if you prioritize raw numbers — I still think he has the best case. Prefer Buehler to Burnes? Buehler has fewer strikeouts — 212 against Burnes’ 234 — despite pitching 40 more innings. Prefer Wheeler? Wheeler muscled his way to 213.1 innings — and 13 more strikeouts. He also surrendered nine more home runs, and his ERA-, which accounts for his tough home stadium, was nine points higher, which means Burnes was 9% better relative to league average — in the rate statistic that least flatters Burnes. Max Scherzer? He barely pitched more innings than Burnes, had a worse ERA and FIP, didn’t go deeper into starts, and gave up three times as many bombs. If you only took a brief glance at the NL Cy Young race, it would be a nearly impossible web to untangle. Five pitchers — seven, really, because Urías and Kevin Gausman had wonderful seasons as well — all have standout numbers. Dig a little deeper, though, and it’s a false equivalence. They have similar-ish numbers, but only if you don’t think on it too long. Burnes laps the field in the most impressive numbers. He’s neck-and-neck in total value accrued, even with fewer innings logged. There’s no one who does so well in both categories — and that sells him short, because his mastery of strikeouts, walks, and home runs over a full season’s work puts him in rare historical air. I don’t have a vote this year — I’m not a BBWAA member, and the San Francisco chapter isn’t exactly an easy place to get a vote even if I were. If I did have one, though, I’d place Burnes first on the ballot and feel great about it. I’d have Scherzer, who was Burnes-esque except for the homers, second. After that, I’d place Wheeler third, Buehler fourth, and Urías fifth, though I wouldn’t quibble with someone for mixing Woodruff in there somewhere. One last thing — I’ve heard a few people mention the defense behind Burnes as a reason that his ERA is less impressive than it first appears. Don’t buy the hype. Whatever your view of their overall defense, per Baseball Savant, the Brewers actually cost him three outs relative to average with their play behind him. Meanwhile, Wheeler has gained nine outs from his defense, Buehler has gained five, Scherzer has gained two, and Woodruff has gained four. We had the pleasure of watching one of the great pitching performances of our era this year. A run at the FIP triple crown, league-leading run prevention numbers, and sheer “here is my cutter, you won’t hit it” dominance at every turn — he did it all. Watching a Burnes start felt like a rare treat every time out, and hitting a homer off of him — or even drawing a walk — seemed like a rare achievement. This season will live on in the record books — and I think it should live on in a chunk of metal on Burnes’ shelf, as well.