Shane Bieber took Major League Baseball by storm in the beginning of the 2020 season. He got the nod on Opening Day for Cleveland after being named to his first All-Star team and placing 4th in AL Cy Young voting in 2019. He did not disappoint, going 6 innings, allowing just 6 baserunners, and striking out a season-high 14 batters. His next start, against a star-studded Minnesota Twins lineup, was even better – 8 scoreless innings, allowing just 3 singles, and striking out 13. Bieber continued this dominance throughout the entire 2020 season, as he did not pitch fewer than 5 innings, allow more than 3 runs, or strike out fewer than 8 batters in any of his 12 starts en route to a 1.63 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 2.07 FIP, and a unanimous Cy Young award selection. Another pitcher is bullying hitters in a similar fashion to start 2021 and is showing no signs of slowing down as the season progresses. Enter Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes.
A 4th round pick by the Brewers in 2016, Burnes soared through the minor leagues and found himself pitching out of the back-end of Milwaukee’s bullpen in the NLCS just two years later. An attempt to move Burnes back into a starting role to open 2019 was unsuccessful, as he sported a 10.70 ERA through 4 starts, allowing 21 runs and an uncharacteristically high 11 home runs, in just 17.2 innings before being relegated back to the bullpen for the remainder of the season.
It wasn’t until the 2020 season that Burnes once again started to show the promise that made him one of the Brewers’ top prospects. After rejoining the rotation for good on August 18th, he was nearly unhittable: a 1.65 ERA, .491 opponent OPS, and 36.8% strikeout rate in 8 starts to close out the season. He drastically altered his pitch selection, effectively nixing his 4-seamer that got obliterated to the tune of a .425 BA and .823 SLG and was MLB’s worst pitch in terms of Run Value in 2019:
While this was undoubtedly a great improvement, Burnes still sensed something was off with his primary offering, which now was his sinker. He averaged 96 MPH with the pitch but recorded below-average movement both horizontally and vertically, subsequently resulting in just an 18.4% whiff rate. Despite this, he greatly overperformed his .313 xBA and .581 xSLG with the sinker, leading many to expect regression; his 2.11 ERA was more than a full run lower than his expected mark of 3.20.
So how did Burnes counter this? By altering his pitch mix even further:
The cutter was a deadly weapon for Burnes in 2020, generating a whiff on a third of the swings it induced while also being an extremely effective groundball pitch, with a -2 degree average launch angle. It has been even nastier so far this year, as opposing hitters are 2-for-30 with 15 strikeouts against the pitch, which he has thrown nearly 3 MPH faster than he did in 2020 while maintaining above-average movement. Hitters simply don’t have any answers for the pitch, especially since Burnes has so many quality offerings in his arsenal.
If Burnes’ early returns to this point are any indication of how this adjustment will affect his overall performance, then his 2021 season may prove to be the best by a Brewer since CC Sabathia‘s absurd 2008 half-season in Milwaukee. He is already off to a historic start, having become the first pitcher since 1906 with at least 30 strikeouts and no walks after 3 starts to begin a season (which came vs. the Twins, at the Cardinals, and vs. the Cubs). His unreal start to 2021 definitely holds its own against that of Shane Bieber last year:
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One of my spiciest pre-season predictions was that not Burnes but fellow Brewer Brandon Woodruff would win the NL Cy Young award in 2021. I’m not backing off of that take yet; Woodruff is phenomenal and under-appreciated in his own right. But he’s playing second fiddle to Burnes right now, and, in addition to everything already mentioned here, a lot of the arguments I made for Woodruff also apply to Burnes, including playing in an NL Central division full of weak offenses (the Reds aren’t this good) and having a revamped defense behind him featuring new acquisitions Kolten Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. and the return of Lorenzo Cain (each of whom has won a Gold Glove in the past). If indeed Corbin Burnes is this year’s Shane Bieber, he’ll walk away with some hardware and once again find himself pitching in October.