Corbin Burnes has been building a case for the NL Cy Young award all season and could be the first Brewer to raise the elite pitching award since consecutive winners Rollie Fingers (1981) and Pete Vuckovich (1982). He’ll look to make one last good impression on the voters with his Saturday start against the Dodgers.
First is the word for Burnes in 2021. In addition to putting us on historical event watch all season, Burnes also holds the league’s best metrics in an abundance of categories, particularly those that indicate the aspects of his performance he can control.
Burnes’ 1.55 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is first in Major League Baseball. The nine-person list of major league pitchers with a better season in terms of FIP is limited to the likes of Satchel Paige, Pedro Martinez, and Cy Young himself.
Burnes also leads the league in strikeout rate (35.5%), walk rate (5.1%), and consequentially, the largest difference between the two. He also allows the fewest home runs per nine innings (0.33). Despite logging most of his innings in a hitter-friendly park, he allows scant opportunities for opposing teams to score, with or without the Brewers’ stellar defense.
MLB’s Adam McCalvy breaks down how Burnes is particularly impressive from a strikeout perspective -
Burnes also notched a historic strikeout achievement this season, tying an MLB record of ten strikeouts in a row against the Cubs on August 11.
Burnes also recorded record 58 strikeouts before recording a walk.
And of course, Burnes combined with Josh Hader for the Brewers’ first no-hitter in thirty-four years.
Critiques and Competitors
Max Scherzer is one of Burnes’ competitors for the award, and Scherzer does have a strong case in terms of the classic Cy Young evaluators. Scherzer, until recently, had the better ERA and presently owns a better WHIP (0.86) and BAA (.184). Scherzer also ranks second in strikeouts (236), behind Zack Wheeler.
Burnes is also no slouch, though, in the more traditional Cy Young evaluations, which tend to evaluate pitching without adjustments for sole pitcher control. He leads baseball in terms of ERA (2.29), while his average against (.199) and WHIP (0.93) are second to Max Scherzer.
In addition to a less impressive individual season than Burnes, Scherzer has another thing working against him: he would be only the second Cy Young winner in history to win the award after switching teams midseason. Rick Sutliff was the only other pitcher to do it in 1984 when he went from a dismal fifteen starts with Cleveland to a 2.69 ERA over twenty starts for the Cubs to a unanimous Cy Young win.
Scherzer’s teammate Walker Buehler has also had an impressive season, producing a league-leading twenty-seven quality starts. Recency bias and several faltering starts in September hurt his case, though.
The only critique of Burnes’ performance is the number of innings he’s logged in his stellar season. Burnes’ inning count has been stalled by Craig Counsell’s arm-saving rotation plan and COVID-19, which Burnes contracted after opting out of vaccination earlier this season.
Innings matter for Burnes’ most formidable Cy Young competitor, Zack Wheeler of the Phillies. Wheeler’s metrics are impressive (2.78 ERA, 29.4 K%, 5.4 BB%, 2.58 FIP). You’ll notice all of these are less impressive than Burnes’, but Wheeler has kept up this success across significantly more innings (213.1) and more starts (32). He’s also pitched three complete games, two shutouts, and twenty quality starts. Across more opportunities, he also has more strikeouts than Burnes (a league-leading 247.)
In terms of WAR, Wheeler has a significantly higher bWAR (7.5, first in the league) than Burnes (5.8). Meanwhile, Burnes is the favorite in terms of Fangraphs fWAR (7.6, a narrower lead over Wheeler’s 7.2)
In Joe Posnanski’s excellent “Burnes Baby Burnes,” Posnanski breaks down how Baseball-Reference’s bWAR adjustments paint a less flattering and less accurate picture of Burnes, Why? The run-preventing Brewers have an impressive collective DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), which Baseball-Reference uses to adjust a pitchers’ bWAR.
In this line of thinking, a pitcher backed up by a defense with a better DRS needs a WAR adjustment because he has more help than typical from the defense. Meanwhile, Statcast metrics that help calculate Fangraph’s fWAR isolate the defensive backup for Burnes and suggest that the Brewers’ defense has been below average when Burnes is on the mound this season.
The result: Burnes gets dinged twice in bWAR (5.3) for having an overall impressive defense that backs him up less effectively than typical, while fWAR (7.1) is a better measure of his collective performance this season.
Who wins the Cy?
Scherzer has had the least impressive individual season of the frontrunners but leads by traditional ERA/BAA/WHIP measures. Wheeler has had a stellar season and has consistently helped his team win over the most appearances and innings. Burnes owns the most impressive season by performance and notched the most notable and record-setting achievements. He’s also a top-three contributor to a division-leading and World Series-contending team, which shouldn’t mean everything, but does mean something.
By virtually every measure, Burnes deserves to bring Cy Young hardware home to Milwaukee for the first time in nearly four decades. He’ll have one more opportunity to rack up some innings today against the Dodgers before Cy Young voters submit their ballots ahead of the postseason.