Corbin Burnes’ Walkless Run Is Incredible

With apologies to Jacob deGrom, no pitcher in baseball is as hot as Corbin Burnes right now. Through four starts, the Brewers’ 26-year-old righty has allowed just one run and eight hits, and has yet to walk a single batter in 24.1 innings, that while striking out an eye-opening 40 hitters. His outings have quickly become appointment viewing — not too shabby for a pitcher with just 17 big league starts under his belt — and he’s already carved himself a small niche in the record books.

Burnes didn’t exactly come from nowhere — he was a Top 100 Prospect here and elsewhere three years ago — but his setbacks have made his rise to dominance all the more dramatic. Between pitching in a small market and thriving under pandemic conditions, he’s flown a bit beneath the radar until now, though a guy carrying a 0.37 ERA and 0.68 FIP can do that for only so long. The short version of his tale is that the 2016 fourth-round pick out of St. Mary’s College made a solid debut out of the Brewers’ bullpen in ’18, but his attempt to get a foothold in the rotation went disastrously the following year, as he was pummeled for 21 runs in 17.2 innings over four March and April turns. In between detours to Triple-A and the Injured List, he made 28 more appearances out of the bullpen but was lit for an 8.82 ERA and 6.09 FIP in 49 total innings.

Last year, however, he ditched a too-straight four-seam fastball that in 2019 had averaged 95.2 mph but had been lit for a .425 batting average and .823 slugging percentage, a malady Ben Clemens detailed during his examination of Burnes’ expanding repertoire as part of our Thursday Burnesday package. In its place, Burnes opted for a sinker/cutter combination that was utterly filthy, with the former averaging 96.0 mph and the latter 93.1. Both had elite spin rates, a common thread across Burnes’ arsenal. Via The Ringer’s Michael Baumann, “Out of 209 pitchers with enough playing time to qualify for the Baseball Savant leaderboard last year, Burnes had the third-fastest-spinning slider and cutter… the second-fastest-spinning sinker, and the eighth-fastest-spinning curveball.”

Within the context of the abbreviated 2020 campaign, the result was a stealth Cy Young candidate season — stealth because he made an early detour to the bullpen to piggyback Brett Anderson’s starts, and then strained an oblique in his September 24 start, resulting in a departure that left him one measly, stinkin’ out short of qualifying for the ERA title. Had he reached 60 innings, his 2.11 ERA would have placed fourth, and his 36.7% strikeout rate second (0.1% behind deGrom), while his 2.03 FIP would have led the league, 0.85 ahead of winner Trevor Bauer, 0.20 ahead of runner-up Yu Darvish, and 0.23 ahead of the third-place deGrom. As it was, Burnes’ 2.4 WAR tied for fifth in the NL, and he placed sixth in the Cy Young voting, a remarkable turnaround for a pitcher who had been below replacement level the year before.

Burnes has added velocity on all of the offerings in his wide repertoire this year, with the sinker now averaging 97.0 mph and the cutter at 96.0 mph; he’s throwing the latter 50.4% of the time, up from 31.5% last year at the expense of the former. As Ben detailed, his pitches are moving differently, less in some cases, but the results have utterly befuddled hitters.

Burnes began his season with six no-hit innings against the Twins opposite José Berríos, who no-hit the Brewers for six innings as well. The Brewers’ hurler got one out in the seventh before serving up a homer to Byron Buxton that wound up being decisive, but he hasn’t allowed another run since in starts against the Cardinals, Cubs, and Padres. He allowed just one hit against St. Louis, and two against Chicago, which according to Baseball-Reference’s Stathead made him the first pitcher since at least 1901 with a streak of three starts of six or more innings and two or fewer baserunners. Thirteen pitchers have had two consecutive outings like that, from Cy Young himself in 1904 to John Means last year, with Max Scherzer doubling up, in 2015 and ’18.

Including Tuesday night’s dominant performance in San Diego, Burnes has now struck out at least nine in each of his four outings, which by itself is neat but well short of the record of 11, set by Nolan Ryan in 1977 and approached by Chris Sale in 2018 (he had 10, then landed on the injured list). It’s the fact that Burnes has strung together those games without a walk that puts him in uncharted territory. Three other pitchers have had streaks of at least three starts with nine or more strikeouts and no walks, all of them in the recent past, with one of them doubling up:

Streaks of 9 Strikeouts and 0 Walks
Pitcher Strk Start End Games Tot IP Tot R Tot SO
Corbin Burnes 4/3/21 4/20/21 4 24.1 1 40
Chris Archer 5/27/15 6/7/15 3 23.0 2 38
Clayton Kershaw 7/8/15 7/23/15 3 26.0 0 38
Clayton Kershaw 4/26/16 5/7/16 3 23.0 7 34
Charlie Morton 8/5/19 8/16/19 3 20.0 7 29
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Additionally, the 40 strikeouts without a walk to start the season is a record for starting pitchers according to the Elias Sports Bureau, surpassing the 35 strikeouts without a walk by Adam Wainwright in 2013. The only pitcher with more strikeouts without a free pass to start the season is Kenley Jansen, who reached 51 strikeouts in 2017.

What’s more, Burnes’ 40 strikeouts without a walk is unprecedented across any four-start span according to STATS, Inc. That’s cool, but what’s even cooler is the new Stathead Span Finder feature, which is still in beta but which shows us exactly who Burnes has surpassed on this walkless run:

Most Strikeouts Without a Walk Over 4-Start Span
Pitcher Team Span Start Span End IP R SO
Corbin Burnes Brewers 4/3/21 4/20/21 24.1 1 40
Curt Schilling Diamondbacks 5/13/02 5/29/02 30.0 8 39
Matt Shoemaker Angels 5/21/16 6/6/16 30.1 8 37
Fergie Jenkins Cubs 7/10/71 7/24/71 36.0 6 37
Yu Darvish Cubs 7/30/19 8/15/19 24.0 7 36
Jeff Samardzija Cubs 5/3/17 5/20/17 29.2 10 36
Curt Schilling Diamondbacks 5/18/02 6/3/02 30.0 9 36
Yu Darvish Cubs 8/4/19 8/21/19 23.1 12 35
Pedro Martinez Red Sox 8/14/00 8/29/00 28.0 9 35
Corey Kluber Indians 5/19/18 6/5/18 26.1 3 34
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Note the extent to which Burnes’ run prevention stands out there. Additionally, he’s the only pitcher on this list in single digits in hits allowed (eight); the next lowest totals are the 18 allowed by Martinez and the 19 allowed by Darvish in the longer of his two overlapping streaks. Anyway, that’s some impressive company. If you’re wondering about what’s next, Schilling holds the record with 47 strikeouts without a walk in his fifth start of the above streak.

As for his overall numbers, Burnes’ 47.1% strikeout rate is second to deGrom’s 48.6%, but deGrom has also walked 4.2% of hitters, and so Burnes has the edge in strikeout-walk differential, 47.1% to 44.4%. For some perspective, the single-season record for strikeout rate by an ERA-qualified starter is Shane Bieber’s 41.1%, set last year, and over a 162-game season it’s 39.9%, set by Gerrit Cole in 2019; for strikeout-walk differential, Cole’s 34.0% from that same season is the mark to beat. Not that Burnes necessarily will, but watching him soar above those rates is a sight to behold.

Meanwhile, Burnes’ overall 19.0% swinging strike rate is second only to deGrom’s 23.4%, while his 38.3% CSW% (Called Strike and Whiff Rate, a new stat we’ve added to our pages, a predictive metric that provides better insight into pitcher skill than just swinging-strike rate) is tops.

We haven’t even discussed what happens when batters have made contact against Burnes this year, and admittedly, we’re still short of the point at where these numbers tend to stabilize (generally around 70 batted ball events). Even so, it seems worth noting that Burnes is generating more groundballs than ever (54.8%, up from 46.4% last year), and that batters are making less solid contact:

Corbin Burnes Batted Ball Comparison 2020-21
Year BBE EV Pct Barrel% Pct Hard-Hit% Pct xwOBA Pct
2020 125 86.9 74 7.2% 48 34.4% 64 .276 81
2021 42 86.5 76 4.8% 74 26.2% 91 .170 99
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Burnes was better than average but not elite when it came to most of his contact stats last year, though his barrel rate was middling. This year, despite a virtually unchanged exit velo, he’s in elite territory, including having the majors’ lowest xwOBA allowed among qualifiers.

Where Burnes has been particularly ungodly is in two-strike counts. Last year, he held batters to a .136 xwOBA with two strikes, the majors’ lowest mark among starters. This year, he’s in a virtual tie with Tyler Glasnow for the top mark at .097. Combining the two seasons for a beefier sample:

xwOBA with Two Strikes, 2020-21
Rk Pitcher Team AB H xwOBA
1 Corbin Burnes Brewers 188 10 .124
2 Tyler Glasnow Rays 190 14 .141
3 Shane Bieber Cleveland 240 20 .149
4 Trevor Bauer Reds/Dodgers 225 25 .156
5 Kenta Maeda Twins 183 20 .166
6 Joe Musgrove Pirates/Padres 146 17 .168
7 Dinelson Lamet Padres 143 16 .168
8 Jacob deGrom Mets 224 34 .172
9 Nathan Eovaldi Red Sox 160 26 .177
10 Zach Eflin Phillies 159 24 .183
11 Yu Darvish Cubs/Padres 226 32 .185
12 Zac Gallen Diamondbacks 153 17 .185
13 Brandon Woodruff Brewers 215 23 .186
14 Clayton Kershaw Dodgers 181 28 .188
15 Max Scherzer Nationals 231 33 .190
16 Trevor Rogers Marlins 127 20 .192
17 Zach Plesac Cleveland 149 21 .194
18 Gerrit Cole Yankees 235 31 .195
19 Germán Márquez Rockies 178 17 .196
20 Yusei Kikuchi Mariners 134 18 .197
21 Carlos Carrasco Cleveland/Mets 141 19 .197
22 John Means Orioles 146 19 .197
23 Kevin Gausman Giants 186 24 .199
24 Aaron Nola Phillies 214 35 .201
25 Dylan Bundy Angels 192 31 .205
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

That’s practically everybody who’s anybody in starting pitching today, and there’s Burnes at the head of the class. The microscopic numbers he’s putting up right now aren’t sustainable, but the run is something else to watch, and it’s abundantly clear that he’s earned a spot among the game’s aces.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Burnes facts:

Corbin Burnes has more starts this season with 9+Ks and 0 walks (4) than Jacob DeGrom had in either his 2019 or 2018 seasons. DeGrom won the Cy Young award in each of those years. It’s more than Kershaw had in either his 2011 or 2013 Cy Young award seasons. There’s 145 games left this season.

Corbin Burnes has 3 starts this season with 9+ strikeouts, 0 walks, and 0 runs allowed. The MLB record in a season is 4. Burnes is the 11th player in MLB history with 3.

Burnes has started 17 games in his career. He’s had 9+ strikeouts, 0 walks, and 0 runs allowed in 5 of those starts. The MLB career record is 14. Kershaw is 2nd in MLB history with 10. Kershaw has started 358 games.