The Curse of Juan Nieves (or Bill Schroeder) is over. On Saturday night, the Brewers threw the second no-hitter in franchise history and the first since Nieves’ effort in 1987. Corbin Burnes dominated over the first eight innings, and Josh Hader secured the feat with a perfect ninth.
Whatever your thoughts on joint no-hitters may be, the fact remains that this was still by definition a no-hitter. In this particular game, however, Burnes was just three outs away from etching his name into the history books when Craig Counsell intervened and removed him. It’s fair to be disappointed. Combined no-hitters often lack the thrill that comes with watching one guy get it done without any help from the bullpen. The state of Wisconsin would have exploded had Burnes completed the accomplishment himself.
From a long-term view, however, Counsell deserves credit for putting his foot down. He and his staff have made it a priority to carefully manage the health of Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta. All three starters are controlled long-term, have bright futures ahead of them, and are carrying heavier workloads than ever before. A shoulder injury stopped Peralta from blowing past his previous career-high in single-season innings as a professional, but both Woodruff and Burnes have surpassed their previous highs. Furthermore, these higher inning totals have come on the heels of a 60-game 2020 season.
In addition to being in uncharted territory from an innings standpoint, Burnes’ 115 pitches were the most he has ever thrown in a Major League outing. Counsell was questioned on allowing the right-hander to return for the eighth inning when he had already exceeded 100 pitches and was not going to pitch the ninth. Burnes’ night was likely going to be over once he either allowed a hit or exceeded his previous career-high of 108 pitches, whichever came first. After finishing the seventh at 103 pitches, the ace pleaded for another frame, and Counsell obliged. When he reached a higher pitch count than ever before by the end of the inning, the skipper drew a hard line.
In his postgame presser, Counsell confirmed that he didn’t consider Burnes to be approaching dangerous territory when he sent him back out for the eighth. Trying to finish the game, however, would have been a different story.
Most critics asserted that Burnes’ arm would not have fallen off due to throwing an additional 15-20 pitches. Those critics are likely correct. While he could have sustained an injury trying to finish the game, he could have just as easily sustained one at any point in the outing. Every player is at some risk of injury whenever they are on the field.
This is why Counsell also stressed in his interview how the context of this particular season played into his decision. One more inning might not dramatically alter the long-term arc of Burnes’ career, but it could impact how fresh he is into the postseason this year. The Brewers plan to make a deep postseason run, and Burnes will be a crucial part of it. In addition to his regular-season innings, he could work up to an additional 30 frames in October and November. Jumping from 60 total innings in 2020 to nearly 200 the following year is big deal.
The Brewers need the right-hander to have plenty of bullets left in the postseason. They knew this going into the year. Those bullets will be the ones saved by using a six-man rotation and shaving an inning here and there off his outings. The moves that do not seem to matter that much in the context of one game—pushing a start back by a day or two, not letting him throw just 15 more pitches, or not letting him go just one more inning—matter in the grand scheme of the full season. Those pitches saved add up by the end of the year.
If his team was not contending, Counsell could have let Burnes throw 130+ pitches to finish the no-hitter and subsequently shut him down for the season. After all, there would be nothing left to save him for, so there would not be much risk in letting it ride. This year, he is planning for over one month of extra baseball. Finishing the game probably would not have resulted in a major arm injury, but it could have impacted how Burnes’ body responded in the following days and weeks. By not stretching him too far beyond his typical length, the Brewers can keep Burnes on his usual schedule, which is the safest option as they approach October.
To understand why Corbin Burnes was not allowed to finish a no-hitter, one must recognize that throwing one was never the goal for the 2021 Brewers. The franchise already entered Saturday night with a no-hitter, albeit one that occurred over 30 years ago. Something the Brewers have never done is win a World Series. That is their goal for this season. No-hitters are awesome, but championship parades are better. Craig Counsell deserves credit for not allowing a single-game accomplishment to distract him from his team’s true goal.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference