Cutter in Hand, Corbin Burnes Is the Hottest Pitcher on the Planet

Corbin Burnes was still flying below the radar when he was featured here at FanGraphs in June 2017. He’d come into the season ranked No. 18 on our Milwaukee Brewers Top Prospect list, and Baseball America was even less bullish, slotting him 24th on their own. When I talked to him for the article, the 2016 fourth-round pick out of St. Mary’s College had yet to throw a pitch above the A-ball level.

He’s not under the radar anymore. Burnes broke out in last year’s pandemic-shortened season, and two weeks into the current campaign he’s the hottest pitcher on the planet. Over his first three starts, the 26-year-old right-hander has allowed four hits and one run in 18-and-a-third innings. Moreover, he has 30 strikeouts and has yet to issue a free pass. In a nutshell, hitters have been helpless against his five-pitch mix.

Burnes has much the same mindset as four years ago. He told me at the time that he considered himself a power pitcher, and that his M.O. was missing bats. Each time he took the mound, it was with the belief that he was better than the person standing in the batter’s box. He was out there to dominate.

Which isn’t to say that nothing has changed. Burnes had a four-seamer with natural cut when we first spoke, and now he’s sans the four, and in possession of baseball’s best cutter.

I asked Brewers pitching coach Chris Hook about the righty’s meteoric rise.

“The usage has changed,” said Hook, who worked with Burnes at Double-A Huntsville in 2017, and then as the organization’s minor league pitching coordinator before moving into his current role in November 2018. “The four-seamer has basically become a cutter that he commands, is probably the best way to say it. The curveball, he’s always had. I think the shaping… and what I mean by that is the execution, and the understanding of what that pitch is going to do, [as opposed to] just trying to throw the bejesus out of it. He has a better understanding of the shapes, so now he can use them best in zone.”

Burnes has been throwing his cutter a full 50% of the time this season, with sinkers, sliders, curveballs, and changeups filling out his mix. And execution isn’t the only reason his signature pitch has been so effective. At 96.1 mph, Burnes has the hardest cutter in either league.

Asked about the pitch on Tuesday, Burnes largely echoed what Hook had told me a day earlier. The natural cut he’d been getting on his four-seamer worked to his advantage during a successful 2018 rookie season, but the inconsistency that came along with it caught up to him in 2019. Working out of the Brewers’ bullpen, Burnes logged an ugly 8.82 ERA in his second go-round against big-league hitters.

An adjustment was needed, and it came almost by happenstance.

“We were coming through this process of going to the sinker more — sinker/slider — and it just kind of dawned on me one day,” Burnes explained. “My four-seam has this cutting action, and guys are swinging-and-missing on it, but it’s not entirely on purpose; it just kind of happens. So we cleaned up a few things and were able to [make it] a cutter. With a few tweaks here and there, and a few adjustments with the ball position in my hand, we kind of unlocked this pitch.”

Burnes had told me about the natural cut in 2017, and in 2019 he told me that his slider was initially supposed to be a cutter. After reminding the right-hander of those pronouncements, I asked if he could elaborate on the evolution of his elite offering.

“It happened in the offseason prior to 2020,” responded Burnes. “I had the idea to throw two sliders. It was the slider we had seen previously, in 2018 and 2019, and then a harder, tighter slider, which eventually turned into this cutter. So at one point I was throwing two different sliders, one with a little bit more depth, and one with a little bit more horizontal. Then there was the curveball for more vertical. So we were going to come in with three breaking pitches.

“When we got into spring training, we started to realize that it was going to be more of a cutter,” continued Burnes. “That’s when we kind of made a few tweaks. It was, ‘Let’s make it more of an actual cutter, versus a slider with some depth.’ That way we had three distinct pitches and wouldn’t worry about things blending together.”

The tweaks were two-fold. According to Hook, Burnes made “a fundamental change in his delivery that allowed him to stay on this pitch, and be more consistent.” (Exactly what that change was is a question for another time. Being on a Zoom call with several other reporters, asking for elaboration wasn’t practical.)

I did have an opportunity to follow up with Burnes on his ball-in-hand adjustment, which was presumably a simple matter of changing seam orientation. Even so — the limitations of a Zoom media session once again rearing its ugly head — the response I got was less-specific than I’d hoped for.

“Just a little tweak with the ball in the hand, the way I hold the baseball,” said Burnes. “Nothing special. Nothing crazy. No special gimmicks, just kind of tweak the baseball a little bit and throw a cutter.”

That would be a mid-90s cutter that has been nearly impossible for batters to square up. Once again, Corbin Burnes is the hottest pitcher on the planet.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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2 years ago

Burnes has been incredible, and so has Woodruff & Peralta. The Brewers traditionally haven’t produced many elite SP, probably have to go back to Ben Sheets. Interesting they’ve developed 2, possibly 3 at ~same time. Wonder if it’s how their developing guys now.

2 years ago
Reply to  NaterJ

“Produced” is certainly the operative word. Their pitching lab at spring training is like a secretive club. Guys go in one way and come out looking completely different. What’s exciting is that Woodruff (sinker), Burnes (cutter), and Peralta (slider) reached this point of development after reaching the majors, whereas prospects like Antoine Kelly, Ethan Small, and Aaron Ashby are getting this type of development early in their careers. Could be a stable of quality arms in Milwaukee for a while.