Corbin Burnes the Braves in Game 1 Brewers Win

The National League Division Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers got off to a low-scoring start on Friday afternoon, with Corbin Burnes dueling Charlie Morton for six innings. Offense was nearly nowhere to be found, as the teams combined for just nine hits against 18 strikeouts. The three runs came on two hits: a two-run shot by Rowdy Tellez in the bottom of the seventh and a solo follow-up by Joc Pederson the next half-inning:

That wasn’t the only big moment of the night by Tellez, as the husky first baseman made a solid throw to nail Jorge Soler at the plate for the back end of an Ozzie Albies double play ball in the first inning. That run turned out to be the difference.

After the first playoff start of his career, Burnes might regret that Cy Young ballots were due before the postseason starts, as he showed a national audience why he had such a dominating 2021. Breakout-era Burnes features an extremely hard cutter — the second-fastest this year outside of Brusdar Graterol’s — that both lefties and righties struggle to hit with authority. He threw 48 cutters in Game 1 and only six were put into play, with the Braves whiffing on 39% of their swings. Burnes ended his night with six strikeouts versus just two hits.

As excellent as he was for the rest of the game, the nitpicker in me has to mention that Tellez’s double play in the first was necessary because Burnes had some early control issues. Ahead 1-2 against Soler, Burnes missed by a good amount on three cutters in a row. Freddie Freeman also walked, with Soler advancing to third on an errant cutter that, while ruled a passed ball, did appear to cross-up catcher Omar Narváez:

After the double play, Burnes threw a 59-foot slider that allowed Freeman to advance to third. Burnes ended the inning on a better-located cutter and slider that finished off Austin Riley without allowing a run to score, but he was fortunate to escape unscathed. Three walks is a lot for Burnes, who only hit that mark in a game four times in 2021 and notably didn’t allow his first free pass of the season until May. Still, even my nitpicking is a testament to Burnes’ superlative campaign. When these are your problems, things are going pretty well, particularly when your opponent fails to capitalize on them.

Adrian Houser took over in the seventh, his only error the sinker that Pederson sliced to left for Atlanta’s lone run. Given his .610 career OPS against lefties, there may have been second-guessing of Craig Counsell’s string pulling if Pederson’s pinch-hit homer had been the difference, but the oblique injury to Brent Suter has left Milwaukee’s bullpen light on lefties. The Brewers might have put 2019 Josh Hader out there for the multi-inning save, but the team has been using him in a more traditional closer role since the start of 2020 and the bases were empty. Pederson’s homer was only the second allowed by Houser since June.

Speaking of Hader, after walking Freeman to lead off the ninth and allowing a single to Riley, the lefty escaped further trouble with a couple of routine groundouts on sliders to Adam Duvall and Orlando Arcia.

Morton took the loss, but it’s one that ought to fall more on his offense’s shoulders rather than his. For most of his outing, the Brewers bats showed as little pep as Atlanta’s. Morton dominated Milwaukee’s hitters with his typical fastball-curve combination, striking out nine. His 85th and final pitch was his worst of the afternoon, a 95 mph fastball in Tellez’s wheelhouse that the first baseman violently pirouetted into the stands. This game won’t end up on Morton’s highlight reel, but he remains one of baseball’s most consistent October pitchers; he’s allowed one run or less in eight of his 14 playoff appearances (one was a four-inning relief outing), good for a 3.34 ERA in 67 1/3 innings.

It wasn’t just the strikeouts, but the complete inability of both teams to hit for power that determined the final score. Burnes held the Braves to an average exit velocity of 80.5 mph, with Morton not far behind at 82.2 mph. To provide context for these numbers, I compared both pitchers to all of the other postseason pitchers of the Statcast era. His Game 1 start puts Burnes just inside the top 10, while Morton just misses the top 25:

Lowest Average Postseason Exit Velocities (min. 50 pitches)
Pitcher Date Average Exit Velocity
Corey Kluber 10/11/2017 74.1
Max Scherzer 10/6/2021 77.5
Charlie Morton 11/1/2017 78.2
Blake Snell 10/27/2020 78.4
Dallas Keuchel 10/6/2017 78.4
Luis Severino 10/14/2017 78.7
José Berríos 10/3/2017 78.9
Clayton Kershaw 10/13/2015 80.3
Zack Greinke 10/17/2019 80.3
Corbin Burnes 10/8/2021 80.5
Max Scherzer 10/9/2017 80.7
Rich Hill 10/8/2018 80.8
Robbie Ray 10/7/2017 81.0
Jon Lester 10/7/2016 81.1
Corey Kluber 10/14/2016 81.4
Johnny Cueto 10/28/2015 81.4
Chris Young 10/20/2015 81.4
Jon Lester 10/17/2015 81.5
Devin Smeltzer 10/5/2019 81.5
CC Sabathia 10/16/2017 81.6
Charlie Morton 10/2/2019 81.6
Justin Verlander 10/31/2017 81.6
Yu Darvish 10/9/2017 81.7
Framber Valdez 9/29/2020 81.8
Adam Wainwright 10/6/2021 81.8

In what I call Duel Score — the harmonic mean of the Game Scores of the two starting pitchers — Morton and Burnes combined for a 68.4, putting them in the 90th percentile for pitchers’ duels in major-league playoff history. During the Wild Card era (since 1995), only 2.5 games per year match this score. Incidentally, the best Duel Score over the last 40 years was the 2016 NL Wild Card Game, when Madison Bumgarner threw a complete-game shutout and Noah Syndergaard matched him for seven innings. Much like this game, that one was settled by a home run, a three-run shot by Conor Gillaspie off Jeurys Familia.

While there isn’t much good news to be had in a loss in a five-game series, this was the matchup ZiPS thought the Braves were the least likely to win. As excellent as the rest of the Brewers rotation has been this year, ZiPS sees Burnes as the cream of the crop. And as losses go, the scoring was light enough that Atlanta’s bullpen survived relatively intact, which may have not been the case in a 12-1 drubbing.

ZiPS now pegs the Brewers as 70/30 favorites, with Brandon Woodruff facing off against Max Fried on Saturday in Game 2 of the Beer vs. Coke series. The alcoholic drink has the early edge, but there’s a lot of baseball left to play.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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hughduffy
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hughduffy

Dan, for the ZiPS Postseason Game-By-Game Odds, while the Braves haven’t announce their Game 3 starter yet, it is almost certainly going to be Ian Anderson, not Huascar Ynoa.

JohnThacker
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Member
JohnThacker

I’m curious about the Brewers’ plans for Game 4. Houser pitched two innings in Game 1; is he the planned Game 4 starter, is it Lauer, or will it be Burnes on short rest (particularly if the Braves are up 2-1 in the series?)