Corbin Burnes faced some tough times in 2019, but the Brewers righty appears to be back on track in 2020.
This is the Corbin Burnes we’ve all been expecting to see for some time. After quickly rising through the minor league system, Burnes made his big league debut in 2018 and dominated out of the bullpen where the Brewers needed him most.
All throughout college and the minor leagues Burnes was a starting pitcher, and he projected to be one in the majors. When 2019 rolled around, hopes were high that he could take that bullpen dominance in 2018 where he posted a 2.61 ERA in 38 innings and translate it to the starting rotation.
He had the stuff and the durability necessary to make that leap. Burnes had four pitches in his arsenal with high marks for his command as well. He was given a shot in the starting rotation in 2019, and things did not go well. He gave up 11 home runs in four starts and did not start a game the rest of season, bouncing up and down between the bullpen and the minors.
Many Brewers fans (you know who you are) gave up hope on Burnes and thought the bullpen should be his permanent home and that Burnes simply wasn’t a good pitcher. He’s proving all of them wrong here in 2020.
Based on his performance, Corbin Burnes has established himself in the starting rotation. There won’t be any more tandem starts with Burnes following someone else out of the bullpen. He’s here to stay this time. Let’s take a look at some numbers.
Corbin Burnes By The Numbers
So far this season, through seven appearances and 32.1 IP, Burnes has a 2.78 ERA, 2.47 FIP, and 3.77 xFIP. He also has a 12.8 K/9 and opponents have just a .262 BABIP against him. The big key for Burnes has been keeping the ball in the park this year, with just a 3.6% HR/FB ratio.
Let’s compare to previous seasons.
2018: 38 IP, 2.61 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, 8.29 K/9, .232 BABIP, 12.9% HR/FB
2019: 49 IP, 8.82 ERA, 6.09 FIP, 3.37 xFIP, 12.86 K/9, .414 BABIP, 38.6% HR/FB
2020: 32.1 IP, 2.78 ERA, 2.47 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, 12.8 K/9, .262 BABIP, 3.6% HR/FB
Man, 2019 is really looking like quite the outlier, isn’t it? Take a closer look at the changes in BABIP and HR/FB ratio. A BABIP over .400 is insanely high and nowhere near Burnes’ average numbers throughout his big league or minor league career. That number has come down to normal this year.
The difference in HR/FB ratio from 2019 to 2020 is huge. Nearly 4 out of 10 fly balls hit against Burnes last year went for home runs. This year, barely anything is going out.
How did Burnes achieve such a drastic change, might you ask? Let’s dig in
Corbin Burnes’ Arsenal
Last year, Corbin Burnes had four pitches that he threw in games; a fastball, slider, curveball, and a splitter. His fastball averaged around 95 MPH and he threw it 57.1% of the time. His slider was and still is viewed as his best pitch, and he threw it 31.1% of the time in 2019. Burnes rarely used his curveball and split-finger with both pitches combining for just 11.8% of his pitches thrown.
Essentially, Burnes was operating as a two-pitch pitcher in the rotation, and one of those pitches, his fastball, he could not command in the zone. That’s not a recipe for success.
In 2020, however, things are different. Burnes has added a fifth pitch to his arsenal, the cutter, and he’s using all of his offspeed pitches almost evenly.
Burnes’ fastball usage is down to 44.2% and has actually picked up some velo along the way, now averaging 96 MPH with the pitch. His secondary offerings are spread out, with the new cutter leading the way at 17.7% usage, followed by his slider at 14.2%, the split-finger at 13.3%, and the curveball at 10.6%.
This year, Burnes is maximizing his wide arsenal of pitches and can command within the zone. He’s not missing over the heart of the plate like he was in 2019. The cutter gives a fastball look but at the last second cuts in on a lefty or away from a righty, missing the barrel of the bat. That leads to baseballs that stay in the park instead of heading to the bleachers.
Burnes’ fastball was pretty straight in 2019, he didn’t have any movement on the pitch. This year, everything is moving all over the place and he’s got hitters guessing instead of sitting comfortably.
Another important stat is that Burnes is getting hitters to swing and make contact on pitches out of the strike zone. The O-Contact % for Burnes is up from 41.9% in 2019 to 54.7% in 2020. He’s getting hitters to chase pitches that end up outside the zone and contact on those pitches are generally less likely to fall for base hits.
What’s even more amazing is that he’s doing all this while allowing similar hard contact rates. The hard contact rate against Burnes in 2019 was 42.1% and in 2020, that number is at 42.4%. He’s still striking out hitters at the same rate, and hitters are making solid contact at the same rate. So how is he succeeding this time around? Pitch movement, sequencing, and command within the strike zone.
The Brewers are finally getting what they’ve been looking for out of Corbin Burnes. He’s better than ever before and he’s in a place where he can succeed for many years: the Milwaukee Brewers starting rotation.