No Fire Puns Necessary: Corbin Burnes Transcends Comedic Headlines

I had a hard time writing the introduction for this article. Actually, strike that — I had one in mind the whole time, but I kept trying to come up with alternatives. Here’s the deal, though. I’m obsessed with Corbin Burnes (in a wholesome, “I love watching this guy pitch” kind of way), and I’ll use any excuse possible to write about him. His seeming transformation into a pitching demigod? Yeah, that certainly qualifies.

If you’re looking for the origins of both my Burnes obsession and his journey from prospect to ace, look no further than his first start of 2019. Burnes threw a gem, from a strikeout perspective at least, notching 12 K’s against a single walk. He also gave up three home runs and lasted only five innings — seems bad! The culprit was a fastball that spun ineffectively, some unholy blend of four-seamer and cutter that hitters had no trouble timing and obliterating.

Think “obliterating” is an extreme word choice? Burnes had an 8.82 ERA in 2019 and a 6.09 FIP. He gave up 17 homers in 49 innings, leading to a two-month trip to the minors. Batters barreled up 13.7% of the fastballs they put in play, which produced 10 of those homers. They whiffed on less than 20% of them, a poor result for such a hard, high-spin pitch. And he simply didn’t get the ride that four-seamers need, a prerequisite for missing bats.

As Mike Petriello expertly detailed last week, the first thing Burnes did was also the best thing he could do. That offseason, he took his four-seam fastball and threw it in the metaphorical garbage can. The pitch’s big problem came down to that ineffectual spin I mentioned earlier.

Think of it this way: the high-spin four-seamers that have taken baseball by storm in the past decade turn most of that spin into vertical movement, which fights the pull of gravity and makes the pitches appear to rise from the perspective of hitters. Cutters take some of the velocity from four-seamers, but they take their spin orientation from sliders. They’re relatively heavy on gyroscopic spin, which contributes to movement via seam-shifted wake rather than the Magnus-force-based movement of back-spun four-seamers. The small amount of transverse spin that remains creates break that’s more horizontal than vertical. They tend to break to a pitcher’s glove side and move mainly horizontally, a sort of slider-fastball hybrid.

Because of the way he gripped his four-seamer, Burnes was throwing a cutter-fastball hybrid, and that’s not really what you want. It kept some of the movement profile of a standard four-seamer, but the gyroscopic spin he imparted killed its movement. That led to a fastball without much movement — not much ride, not much sinker-esque run — and yeah, you don’t want to throw that to major league hitters.

To fix this problem, Burnes went with a wholly different complement of fastballs. First, he embraced that natural cutting action and added a cutter, a pitch that David Laurila examined in detail last week. He took to it like a fish to water, which makes sense. He was already cutting pitches without meaning to, and doing it with intent led to vicious horizontal movement — 4.3 inches in 2020, nearly double the average for cutters thrown as hard as his.

To that, he added a sinker. He couldn’t fight that cutting action, which means his sinker has only 73% transverse spin percentage — right in line with his four-seamer. That’s just fine though, because that fits sinker movement profiles better — they don’t depend on extreme transverse spin in the same way that four-seamers do. His 2020 sinker actually dropped by roughly as many inches (counting gravity) as his 2019 four-seamer on its path to the plate — but it also broke 10 inches more to his glove side. Neat trick!

As Tony Wolfe detailed last year, switching to a sinker also unlocked newfound command. Burnes aimed the pitch low and in to righties, where he’d previously hung the four-seamer middle-middle far too often. With those two fastballs added to his unhittable slider, he surged to a 2.11 ERA in 59.2 innings, garnering Cy Young votes.

All of that is last year’s news. Burnes brought the gang — slider, cutter, sinker — back this season, and in four starts, he has an ERA of shut-up-that’s-not-a-real-ERA, which he’s paired with a no-c’mon-stop-it 47.1% strikeout rate and 0% walk rate. Okay, fine. His ERA is 0.37, on the back of a solo homer surrendered to Byron Buxton in his first start of the year. But my goodness, he’s hot right now — no starter has ever started a season with so many strikeouts before their first walk.

What’s new? As Petriello noted, Burnes is leaning more on his cutter, and hitters haven’t so much as bothered it — well, with the exception of Buxton, whose home run came on a cutter. It’s hard to call that one a terrible pitch, though. Sometimes you’re good and the batter is better:

Ninety-six with movement on the low and away corner of the zone? On most days, that’s a foul ball or a whiff. In fact, that’s what’s happening with most of his cutters. He’s gotten swinging strikes on 18.9% of them, a gaudy rate. If you expand the sample to include 2020, only Shane Bieber and Max Scherzer have been better than Burnes’ 17.4% mark, and he’s doing it on far greater volume — he’s thrown more cutters over that time period than Bieber and Scherzer combined.

Armed with the confidence that comes with that excellent swinging strike rate, Burnes is attacking the strike zone with gusto. He’s already drawn 37 called strikes on the pitch this year, which is what happens when you throw it in the zone 58.9% of the time and batters are terrified to swing at it. To again echo Petriello (look, if something is working, keep doing it), he’s challenging hitters, and Burnes is downright lethal when he’s ahead in the count.

Why? Look no further than his slider, which batters have swung through on roughly two-thirds of their offers at it. He hasn’t thrown it often, but it’s been one of the best sliders in baseball for years, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. You can imagine the bind hitters find themselves in. Even if they manage to recognize the telltale gyroscopic “dot” of the cutter out of his hand, the slider has the same dot but travels 7-10 mph slower and breaks hilariously further; it drops an additional 23 inches and moves an additional six inches sideways.

It’s a cruel combination — it was already a lethal slider, but now that Burnes leads with his cutter so often, batters can’t rely on differentiating between a fastball or a breaking ball and letting that guide their swing decision. It’s akin to spin mirroring, where the ball looks similar out of Burnes’ hand; a cousin to Bieber’s two-curveball gambit of last year. Choose right, and you might still lose. Thanks for playing, Nolan:

Oh, yeah: he throws two other secondaries as well. His curveball is a handy offset to his slider; it’s slower and breaks down more, but it’s the same general idea, more of a two-plane hook than a pure lollipop curve. Per Statcast, it averages 13 inches of horizontal break, and per my eyes, this one has enough drop to send Miguel Sanó on a fishing expedition:

For good measure, he’s using a changeup more frequently this year, a 91 mph demon with more than a foot of armside run. He went to it 20% of the time in a start against the Cubs last week, and well:

Burnes isn’t going to keep this up, because he’s not a time-bending sorcerer from the future. He’s probably not going to strike out 300 while walking none — I can tell you that with some certainty. What he is, though, is an absolutely dominant monster, and if he can keep up both his command of the cutter and his ability to mix in his other pitches to complement it, he’ll have a claim as one of the top handful of starters in baseball.

Does that sound like too bold of an assertion for someone who had an 8.82 ERA only two years ago? It sounds like one, but if you want my opinion — hopefully you do, we’re 1,400 words deep — it’s downright logical. Burnes was terrible in 2019, but the underlying parts of his game were all impressive. He had the velocity, the spin, and the slider that make him so dominant today. There was just the matter of that brutal four-seamer, a pitch that sunk everything else he was doing.

Per our run values, his four-seamer alone was 17.5 runs below average that year. Excising it from his arsenal has been transformative. In the 84 innings he’s pitched with his new pitch mix, he’s compiled a 1.61 ERA and a 1.64 FIP. He’s struck out 39.4% of opposing batters while walking 7.4%. A whopping 17.4% of the pitches he’s thrown have resulted in swinging strikes, the fifth-highest mark in baseball — Jacob deGrom, Bieber, Kenta Maeda, and Lucas Giolito are the only pitchers doing better. In 2021, he’s driven in more runs than he’s allowed!

Maybe that sounds to you like a small sample, overwhelmed by his prior struggles. I disagree. To me, the past two years are a good window into Burnes’s present talent level. He may not keep the command he’s displayed so far this year, though I wouldn’t be shocked to see his walk rate march downward as he develops greater feel for his cutter in his second year throwing it. Until we receive data saying otherwise, though, I’m considering him one of the best handful of starters in the game, a walking devastation visited upon unfortunate hitters by the gods of pitch design.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

As historically dominant as he’s been (pretty sure I saw @MLBRandomStats say he has the lowest WHIP ever through 4 starts with a minimum of 24 innings), it’s just incredible to me that he’s gotten exactly one (1) out in the seventh inning or further. Not an indictment on Burnes himself (he’s been pulled early each time) but if that’s not modern pitching in a nutshell, Idk what is. It’ll be interesting to see how Counsell handles him going forward.

1 year ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

Yeah, I’m not optimistic on Counsell loosening the reins on him this year. Last time Burnes threw even 120 innings was 2017 in the mid-minors. I think they’ll go with a 150 inning or so cap (6 IP per start with a few missed starts in July and August) and then try for 180-200 IP in 2022 or 2023.

Max Power
1 year ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

In the Cubs start, his pitch count was low enough that he would’ve gone back out for the 7th if the Brewers offense didn’t score so much on the Cubs, giving him an over 30 minute wait.

1 year ago
Reply to  mariodegenzgz

I think the Brewers will continue to pull him after 6 IP in hopes of having him available all year and (hopefully) into the playoffs. He certainly has a deep enough repertoire work deep into games, it’s just a matter of managing his workload and total innings this year.