Milwaukee Brewers: Diving Into Corbin Burnes’ Sophomore Slump
By David Gasper
The Milwaukee Brewers had big expectations for Corbin Burnes in 2019, but they have not come to fruition.
At this same time last year, the Milwaukee Brewers were chasing down the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central on the backs of Christian Yelich and an incredibly dominant bullpen. That bullpen included the likes of Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel, and Corbin Burnes, all at the peak of their powers.
Corbin Burnes, the Crew’s highly touted pitching prospect moved from the rotation to the bullpen earlier that year to accelerate his timeline to the big leagues. He thrived in the role. I remember quite vividly, in September and October, with sellout crowds at Miller Park, all 40,000+ people singing along to Burnes’ entrance song, “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks.
But this year, Burnes himself has been in low places, at least as far as his stats are concerned. While he is technically on the active roster and out in the bullpen, we have not seen Burnes the entire month of September, and not many Brewers fans are upset about that. Burnes has posted a 9.00 ERA in just 46 innings this year, meaning he’s given up exactly 46 runs.
But back in his rookie season in 2018, Burnes had a stellar 2.61 ERA in 38 innings out of the bullpen. He looked like a future stud. What happened?
What happened is one of the worst sophomore slumps of all time.
Into A Sophomore Slump
Throughout sports, you’ll hear about sophomore slumps possibly happening with any rookie that has a great first season. Most are just temporary setbacks as the players continue to understand what it takes to compete at the highest level. It’s happened to a number of players across history, including Rick Sutcliffe, Carlton Fisk, and Willie Mays.
But none of those players had it as bad as Burnes has this year. None of them were sent down to the minors multiple times, taken off the field and just given a couple weeks not playing games while perfectly healthy. Burnes has had all of that this season.
It all started coming out of spring training. Burnes was the highly touted pitching prospect, now getting a chance to prove himself in the rotation after a year in the bullpen. To begin the season, Burnes didn’t have his fastball command locked in, which led him to leave pitches right down the middle. He gave up three home runs in each of his first three starts.
Juiced baseball arguments aside, it was a huge problem that Burnes had to fix quickly. It’s difficult to tell from the outside, but with all the hype surrounding him, and players are certainly aware of that kind of hype, and all the expectations for him going into the season, he likely started to pressure himself to pitch better.
Of course, when you start pressuring yourself like that, you tend to play worse. It wasn’t long before Burnes was moved out of the rotation and into the bullpen, and once that happened, in all likelihood, everything was in his head. He couldn’t get out of his own head and get himself out of that funk because when you’re pressing to play better like he was, you end up playing worse.
Look at Travis Shaw, as an example of what happens when you press. Shaw started in a slump, yes, but he started pressing himself on getting out of it, which led things to get worse and now his slump has extended all season. It’s not a sophomore slump for Shaw, but that doesn’t diminish the impact.
The Underlying Numbers
As much as no one believes it right now, Corbin Burnes is actually a really good pitcher that is going to have a great career for the Milwaukee Brewers. This year has just been an avalanche of bad luck for Burnes.
With his 9.00 ERA, his peripheral numbers say he’s been a victim of poor luck. Burnes has a 6.13 FIP, which although high, is much lower than his ERA, and he has a 3.38 xFIP, which is incredible. The difference between FIP and xFIP is that xFIP is the expected ERA with a HR/FB rate of 10.5%, which is fairly reasonable. Some guys have a HR/FB rate lower than that, some have it higher.
Burnes, this year, has a 39% HR/FB ratio. That’s insane! Nearly four out of every 10 fly balls hit off Burnes went out of the park. He is not a fly ball pitcher, mind you. Only 30.8% of the balls in play against Burnes went in the air, and 19.5% of those were infield pop ups. That leaves only 11.3% of the balls in play off Burnes as outfield fly balls, and they were pretty much all flying out.
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You can blame the juiced ball if you want to, but with where Burnes was missing with his location, it’s no surprise there were a lot of bombs.
Also, Burnes had very tough luck on balls in play. The league average BABIP is about .300 in a given season. This year, Burnes has a .417 opponent BABIP against him.
That’s an insanely poor stretch of luck. For context, in 2018, Burnes had a .232 opponent BABIP. His 2018 FIP and xFIP numbers pointed to a little regression, with those numbers sitting in the 3.7 range, but they didn’t point to anything like this.
What’s the cause and the cure?
This is the question that has befuddled Burnes and the Milwaukee Brewers all season.
All of the underlying numbers point to things turning around for Burnes, but they just haven’t this year. His mechanics seem the same, and his pitch mix is similar. He has similar whiff rates and swing rates in and out of the zone, but just hasn’t seen the same success.
The cause of this slump, and there’s really no other statistical or logical explanation, is that he’s trapped in his head. There’s no stat that can quantify the human element like that.
There was hype and pressure on his performance to start the season strong, he got off to a slow start, and then, as a human being, you start to feel that pressure build and you try harder to get things going, it doesn’t work, and you slip back even farther.
Going up and down between the big leagues and Triple-A, with seemingly no real consistency in the plan for him and his schedule also didn’t help.
What the Milwaukee Brewers hope is the cure is taking him off the field, putting him in their pitching lab down in Maryvale for a couple weeks, and helping him understand what he’s doing out there on the mound. Then, with a better understanding, he can gain something positive from this September experience, hopefully with at least an inning or two (in a blowout or something) where he has success, and can take that positivity into the offseason and have a strong, bounceback junior year from this terrible sophomore slump.
The Milwaukee Brewers still believe in Corbin Burnes, and fans should too. Although fans may not trust him in big situations right now, he’s going to be a key piece down the road for this ballclub.