Corbin Burnes has been a frequent topic of discussion for Brewers fans for several years. As he ascended through the minor-league ranks, those discussions flowed with optimism. When he burst onto the scene as a steadfast middle reliever in the second half of the 2018 season, those discussions focused on his electric stuff that everyone got to see regularly for the first time. As he crashed and burned last season, the discussion quickly turned into a search for what was going wrong. Finally, when Burnes delivered a strong showing in both Spring Training and Summer Camp, the conversation came full circle. The optimism had returned.
Burnes has pitched twice in the young 2020 season, both times as a “bulk innings” pitcher (due to the unusual nature of this season, the Brewers have indicated that they will stray even further than they typically do from the traditional starter and reliever roles). The amount of information that can be drawn from that sample size is limited, but it is enough to paint a picture of where Burnes is at in his quest to put 2019 in the rearview mirror.
“The new Corbin Burnes” is a fitting description because this year’s Burnes does not look like the one seen last season. No matter how many times Bill Schroeder tries to pin them on his slider (which was actually among the best sliders in baseball last season), Burnes’ issues last year were rooted in his fastball. He used his hard, but extremely straight, four-seamer over 50% of the time, and he threw it almost exclusively at the belt or lower.
This season, the flame-throwing right-hander has come out of the gates throwing not just one, but three different variations of his fastball—the familiar four-seamer, a two-seamer, and a cutter. In fact, the varying speeds, grips, and movements on his fastballs have confused Statcast’s pitch-tracking system in the early going of the season. Baseball Savant doesn’t list a two-seamer in Burnes’ arsenal, but it does list a cutter.
PITCHf/x, meanwhile, lists all three of Burnes’ fastballs in its system.
The counts for Burnes’ secondary offerings line up fairly well between the two systems, so it appears his trio of fastballs is causing the discrepancy. Statcast identifies both the four-seamer and the two-seamer as the same pitch. A look into Burnes’ game logs shows that the system has also been identifying some pitches in the 95-98 mile-per-hour range as cutters; it is more likely that these are four-seamers with strong horizontal movement, not actual cutters. PITCHf/x appears to have a more accurate representation of his arsenal.
Back to the point. Burnes has revamped the pitch that previously hurt him most. He has rediscovered what was a missing ingredient last season: throwing hard with movement. Take for example this sequence from Monday night in which Burnes used all three of his fastballs—all of them 94 miles-per-hour or faster—to strike out Yasmani Grandal, including a ridiculous sinker that could easily be mistaken for a changeup without the velocity reading.
Lack of movement was not the only factor behind Burnes’ struggles last year. Rarely elevating his fastball was a key culprit as well. Unfortunately, he has displayed virtually no progress in that department.
Burnes has thrown 139 pitches through his first two appearances, and only 7.2% of them have been four or two-seam fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone or higher. That’s nearly identical to last year, when just 7.8% of his offerings were high fastballs. Burnes has not budged from his insistence to throw down in the zone.
A low power sinker is less likely to get crushed than a straight fastball down in the zone, but that does not mean it’s always the way to go. Brandon Woodruff has demonstrated that using both a sinker and high fastball in harmony with one another can yield great results. Last season, Woodruff threw high fastballs on 15.6% of his pitches—twice as often as Burnes does. He used the four-seamer to generate whiffs and the sinker to induce weak ground balls. The result was missing barrels by either jamming hitters or missing their bats entirely, and now Woodruff looks like the homegrown ace that Milwaukee has sought for years.
While his improved stuff features much more movement, Burnes has struggled to harness it. He has issued five walks in seven innings while frequently missing targets by a foot or more. He was especially wild early in his outing against the Cubs.
Burnes did not look nearly as erratic against the White Sox, but he did issue two free passes and missed the desired location badly on several occasions.
Burnes looks significantly better than he did last season. His stuff looks fantastic; he’s throwing with more velocity and movement than ever before. That said, the 25-year-old has not been very efficient, struggling with walks and posting a 1.43 WHIP. His command has been suspect, but the clip above attests that when Burnes is missing his spots, he is not missing over the heart of the plate like he did last year. Very few of his misses are truly bad pitches. Even the high fastball that Jose Abreu launched for a home run on Monday was not a bad one; Abreu was likely sitting on a fastball in a 3-0 count. As a power pitcher unleashing a little white blur that cuts, sinks, and dives, Burnes doesn’t always need to have perfect command. It’s easier to get away with bad pitches when his stuff looks the way it does right now.
What is truly discouraging is that Burnes continues to focus on pitching low; in fact, the clips above demonstrate that many of his high pitches are misses that were intended to be at the bottom of the zone. It remains unknown whether Burnes or the coaching staff is behind this.
Corbin Burnes looks different that he did last year, and that is a start. The stuff is significantly better, which is a notable and necessary first step toward distancing himself from his 2019 struggles. His early showings indicate that he still needs to work on harnessing his talent on the mound and utilizing his weapons in the most effective way possible. Maybe the hype train will need to slow down again, or maybe Burnes will soon take off. Only time will tell, but here’s what is known for now: Corbin Burnes is making progress.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball