When Corbin Burnes first reached the majors in 2018, excitement around his debut was strong. His first season was stellar, as he worked exclusively in relief and posted a 2.61 ERA and 3.79 FIP. Then during the offseason, he converted back to starting and the results went the opposite way. His first four starts were abysmal and he ended up back in the bullpen for a while. He stabilized a bit in the bullpen, but just wasn’t the same as in 2018. He eventually landed on the IL before being optioned back to Triple-A. He did make a few appearances with the Brewers at the end of 2019, though not in the same role. While his strikeout rate improved drastically (12.9 K/9 in 2019), the results were not there overall (8.82 ERA, 6.09 FIP, 17 home runs allowed).
Burnes worked on his approach during the offseason. Excitement built around him again as he impressed in summer camp. As the season began, early results were encouraging. He started the second game of the season against the Cubs, striking out six over 3.1 innings with just one run allowed. After that, he moved more into a long relief role over his next few apperances, following up Brett Anderson’s starts as the first reliever out of the bullpen. In fact, in two of his games, it was a true “piggyback” role, as Brett Anderson started the game and then Corbin Burnes finished it. Through four games, Burnes’ ERA sat at 3.38 and he already had 24 strikeouts in 16 innings. The early analysis was that he had improved, though still needed to work on a few things.
Then, on August 16, Corbin Burnes officially rejoined the Brewers’ rotation after Eric Lauer went down with an injury. Burnes started his next game on August 18, and from there it was a charge forward. In 7 starts between August 18 and September 19 (covering 40 innings), he posted a 1.13 ERA, allowed just a .161/.226/.210 batting line, and had 59 strikeouts compared to 11 walks. He became dominant and teams could not find an answer to him. He had at least seven strikeouts in six of those games, and double-digit strikeouts in three of them. Unfortunately, his season came to an end early, as an oblique strain suffered in his last start of the season landed him on the IL. There was hope that he could pitch in the playoffs if the Brewers made it past the first round, but that never came around as the Brewers were eliminated by the Dodgers.
Despite how his season ended, his season was an undeniable success. He led the starters with a 2.11 ERA and 2.03 FIP, and he posted 88 strikeouts compared to 24 walks. His home runs allowed fell from 17 to 2 (with 1 of those 2 happening in the game he left injured), which is impressive even taking the short season into account. Though he fell 0.1 innings short of being “qualified” in some of the average stats, his fWAR of 2.4 tied him for fifth in the league, his ERA would have been sixth, and his FIP was at the top of the league (when extending the results to a minimum of 50 IP). There has even been some talk of him being a Cy Young candidate, but that would be a tough task in a small market, with bigger names like Jacob deGrom, Yu Darvish, and Trevor Bauer out there.
There’s no doubt that Corbin Burnes is in the Brewers plans going forward. He went from a player with something to prove to being a proven starter for the Brewers, making a strong 1-2 starting tandem with Brandon Woodruff. Assuming the oblique injury heals completely (which it should with plenty of time to rest this offseason), Corbin Burnes has helped set this rotation up to be one of the strongest we have seen in the last several years.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.