Donovan Schultz
On September 11, 2021, the Milwaukee Brewers took on the Cleveland Indians in what seemed to be a rather meaningless game. The Brewers came into the game with a record of 87-55 and a comfortable lead in the National League Central Division, while the Indians limped in at 69-71 and little to no chance at a playoff berth. The game began as expected, as the Brewers tacked on two runs in the top of the first inning before sending their ace Corbin Burnes to the mound in the bottom half of the frame. Over his previous 24 starts, Burnes had built up a strong case for the National League Cy Young award, boasting a 2.38 ERA and a staggering 5.14 strikeout to walk ratio.
Burnes’s first pitch of the night showed everybody how he had amassed such gaudy numbers – a wicked 95 mph cutter painted at the bottom of the strike zone. Two devastating cutters later, Cleveland leadoff man Myles Straw was sent back to the dugout as Burnes tallied his first strikeout of the night.
He struck out seven of the first nine Cleveland batters he faced, racked up five more Ks through the fifth, and most importantly, did not allow a hit. It was becoming obvious to everybody watching that Burnes had a chance to do something special. Among the viewers was Brewers relief pitcher Brent Suter, who was looking on from the bullpen. “He was another level [that night],” said Suter, sharing looks of amazement with the rest of the Brewers bullpen as Burnes continued to mow down the Cleveland offense.
In the seventh, Burnes finally allowed a walk, ending his shot at a perfect game. However, he retired the final two batters of the inning, and walked off the mound shaking his head, as if telling manager Craig Counsell not to take him out of the game. Despite his pitch count being at 103, Burnes got his wish and took the mound once again in the eighth. With the help of a diving catch by centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, Burnes retired the side in order, and found himself just three outs away from history. Unfortunately, Counsell could not be convinced to send Burnes out for the ninth inning, as his pitch count had climbed to 114. Instead, Counsell turned to dominant closer Josh Hader, and he punched out two more Cleveland batters en route to securing the first no hitter for the Brewers since 1987 and just the second in franchise history.
Burnes’ performance that night in Cleveland, eight innings of no-hit baseball with fourteen punch-outs, seemed almost expected. He has dominated the league for two seasons, thanks in large part to his other-worldly cutter and warrior mentality. However, in 2019, this dominance seemed tremendously far-fetched, as Burnes was one of the worst pitchers in all of Major League Baseball that season. Although it would have been easy to quit after such a tough year, Burnes grinded through a rigorous offseason and transformed himself both physically and mentally. The result was a complete 180, as Burnes has taken the league by storm and looks poised to dominate for years to come.
Burnes was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the fourth round in 2016 and quickly made his way through the minor league ranks. He was tabbed as the Brewers fifth best prospect before being called-up in 2018, so the club had high hopes for him. Armed with a blistering four-seam fastball that averaged over 95 mph, Burnes found great success in the bullpen of a Brewers team that went 96-67 and fell one game short of the World Series. In 38 innings, Burnes turned in a 7-0 record with a 2.61 ERA, and heading into 2019, the sky appeared to be the limit for Burnes. He had made a case for being one of the best young pitchers in the game, and the Brewers decided to move him into the starting rotation.
Unfortunately, the 2019 season proved to be disastrous for Burnes. In his first four starts of the year, Burnes posted a 13.50 ERA, averaging less than five innings per start. However, the most alarming statistic was his 11 home runs allowed, the most in MLB. After a start against the St. Louis Cardinals on April 17 in which he allowed nine hits and five runs in 3.1 innings, Burnes was sent down to the Minor Leagues. Burnes would find his way back up to the Brewers after a brief stint in Triple-A but had similar results. He finished the season with an ERA of 8.82 in 49 innings, allowing a whopping 3.1 home runs per nine innings, almost double that of the league leader. Another concerning statistic for Burnes was his walk rate. His 3.7 walks per nine innings would have been sixth worst in the league, had he thrown enough innings to qualify.
Burnes’ struggles could be explained in large part by the ineffectiveness of his four-seam fastball. In 2019, Burnes threw his fastball 52.5% of the time at an average velocity of 95 miles per hour. He also throws his fastball with a high spin rate of about 2700 rotations per minute, which puts him in the 100th percentile among all MLB pitchers. In simple terms, a high spin rate is effective because to the hitter, it appears as if the ball is rising as it approaches home plate. Shockingly, despite these numbers suggesting that his fastball should be his best pitch, it was his worst – by far. Hitters mashed Burnes’ fastball in 2019, posting a staggering .455 batting average and .823 slugging percentage, as well hitting 13 home runs.
Brewers’ pitching Coach Chris Hook recognized this problem and identified that it came from Burnes’s mechanics. He was “getting around” the pitch, cutting the ball rather than stroking it purely out of his hand. This led to the pitch having a low active spin (or spin efficiency), meaning that although he spun the baseball at a high rate, by cutting the ball at release, he was only using about 60% of the spin. As a result, when Burnes’ tried to elevate his fastball, as he often did due to his high spin rate, the ball stayed over the heart of the plate and appeared “flat” to the hitter, allowing them to see it well and make hard contact consistently`.
In September of 2019, Hook and Burnes began work on finding a solution to this problem. They worked on cleaning up the mechanics of his lower half, as it would help prevent him from getting around the ball at release. They also tried throwing a two-seam fastball (or sinker) rather than a four-seam fastball. Whereas a four-seam fastball is straight, a two-seam fastball moves horizontally to the arm-side of the pitcher.
As the forgettable season came to a close, Burnes had a decision make. He could take the easy road, continue pitching the same way he always had, and likely continue to see similar results. Another poor season would almost surely result in another demotion to the minors, leaving his career in jeopardy. Or, he could take the hard road and adapt a new style that would allow for greater success.
Brent Suter spent most of the 2019 season sidelined due to injury but spent a great deal of time around the team. He acknowledged the tough season that Burnes experienced and knew that it “could’ve thrown anybody off their game.” However, Burnes chose the difficult path, dedicating himself to a game that had been so unforgiving to him for the past six months. That winter, Burnes put together what Suter claims was “the best offseason [he’s] ever seen.”
Suter explained how Burnes “was in the sports lab all the time,” referring to the brand new, $60 million Integrative Sports Performance center that the Brewers built at their spring training site in Arizona. In the lab, Burnes worked on making his pitches move more effectively. He also began working on an idea that would change the trajectory of his career.
Previously in his career, Burnes had thrown his four-seam fastball at the top of the zone, as the thought was that his high spin rate would cause a lot of swing and miss. However, his low active spin rendered the pitch ineffective. During the offseason, Burnes realized that rather than letting the low active spin act as a negative, he could use it to his advantage. He began developing a cutter, or a cut fastball, a pitch that is thrown at a similar velocity to a traditional four-seam fastball but has late movement to the glove side of the pitcher. Because the cutter is not straight, it is thrown with low active spin. Suter described how in the lab that offseason, Burnes worked on “getting movement off that natural cut movement that he had and accentuating that natural cut” by changing his grip on the ball. In addition to the cutter, he continued to work on a two-seam fastball, and heading into the 2020 season, Burnes had completely revamped his pitch arsenal.
According to Suter, Burnes arrived at 2020 Spring Training in “unbelievable” form. In a brief spring training schedule, Burnes’ new pitch mix wielded great success, as he posted a 0.90 ERA and a 13/3 strikeout to walk ratio in 10 innings. Unfortunately, the Spring Training slate was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and along with the rest of the world, Burnes was sent home.
Despite the challenges that the pandemic has posed to the world, Burnes was able to use the time to his advantage. According to Hook, Burnes used the time as a period of self-discovery, perfecting the cutter and understanding how to command the pitch while still throwing it at a high velocity. Hook knows that Burnes “has always been a strike thrower,” and his command issues in the major leagues were a result of Burnes “trying to overdo it,” a mistake commonly displayed by young players. By perfecting the cutter, Burnes showed understanding in who he is as a player and how to play to his strengths. The result was a pitch that Burnes can throw with supreme confidence, as he knows where he is throwing it and how it will move.
When MLB finally began “summer camp” on July 1, Burnes came to Hook with a cutter that is “essentially the one that we have seen for the past two years.” In 2020, Burnes threw his two-seamer and cutter at roughly the same clip, and found success with both, finishing the year with a 2.11 ERA in 59.2 innings. However, with opponents batting just .162 against it, it became clear that the cutter was his best pitch. In 2021, Burnes threw his cutter 52.3% of the time, a 20.8% increase from the previous season. The results followed, as opposing batters mustered a measly .237 batting average and just 6 home runs, a tremendous improvement over the 13 home runs he allowed on his four-seam fastball in 2019 in a much smaller sample size. Furthermore, the cutter has allowed Burnes to have much better command than he did with the four-seam fastball, as Hook explained how the cutter has essentially become a fastball that he can command at an extremely high level. He has cut his walk rate down significantly, going from a mark of 3.7 walks per nine innings in 2019 to 1.8 walks per nine in 2021. His pinpoint command was showcased by a remarkable stretch in which he recorded 58 strikeouts before allowing his first free pass of the season, an MLB record. This remarkable turnaround fueled by the discovery of one of the best pitchers in baseball has been good for an MLB ERA title, the first by a Brewers’ hurler in franchise history.
Anybody who watches Corbin Burnes pitch can clearly see that he has elite stuff. However, almost every pitcher in MLB has elite stuff. MLB is a melting pot of the most talented baseball players in the world thrown together on 30 rosters of 26 players. There is not a large talent gap between the best and worst player on a team. The separator between elite players and those who struggle is the mental game. Suter says that although Burnes is a “gifted ballplayer, he has really worked hard on the mental side of the game to make himself elite.”
To Suter, it is clear that Burnes has developed a killer mentality that is infectious among the team. He says that what makes him one of the best pitchers in baseball is “not just his stuff, but the mound presence, the laser-focus, the warrior mentality. It’s impossible not to get fired up watching it and want to go out there to back him.” When Burnes is on the mound, his “dominant, I’m a winner energy” radiates with the rest of the Brewers ballclub, inspiring them to “play great defense behind him and come up with great at-bats.” The numbers reflect that, as Milwaukee won 68% of the games that Burnes started in 2021.
Another area of his game that Burnes has made tremendous strides in since 2019 is his ability to reset himself when the game starts to go in the wrong direction. In 2019, Burnes had six games in which he went 5 innings or less and allowed 4 or more earned runs. In 2021, he had just two such games. Suter credits that to Burnes “doing a really good job of resetting. He has focus points throughout the game where if he throws a bad pitch or two in a row, he takes a great deep breath, really resets, [and] changes his focus.”
This focus and mentality were evident after the 2019 offseason. According to Suter, Burnes was “a different animal,” coming into 2020, “not just stuff-wise, but the mental side. He came in clear, focused, and confident.” After finding success in 2020, Burnes’ confidence has only increased, making him even more dangerous.
On October 8, Burnes got the ball in Game One of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, his first career playoff start. The regular season is a five-month grind, complete with plenty of ups and downs. However, the playoffs are another beast. Each game is crucial, requiring players to be performing at the top of their game. In the first inning, it appeared that perhaps the Corbin Burnes of old had made an appearance. He walked the first two hitters, including a wild pitch, putting runners on first and second with nobody out. Two years ago, a big inning would have broken out, putting the Brewers in a hole before they even had a chance to hit. Luckily for the Brewers, Corbin Burnes put the skills he had developed on display. He reset, gathered himself, and coaxed a double play with a nasty cutter, getting the runner out at home plate. He then punched out the next batter and escaped without any damage. From there, Burnes rolled, throwing six shutout innings and allowing just two hits en route to a 2-1 Brewers victory. Unfortunately, the Brewers lost the next three games, ending their season before Burnes had the chance to take the hill again. However, Burnes’ Game One performance shows how far he has come in the past two years, using a combination of a ridiculous cutter and a killer mentality to overcome adversity and dominate on a big stage.        
In an ideal world, Burnes will celebrate his first Cy Young Award in November, one final accolade to add to one of the best seasons ever by a Brewers hurler. While it may seem like a big deal now, whether he wins the award is largely unimportant. At just 26 years old, it appears as though Burnes will find himself in the thick of that race for years to come. As Burnes continues to move forward in his dominance of MLB, it is important to look back at 2019 and acknowledge the enormous strides he has made. Anybody, no matter what they do, can look to Burnes as a guide to how to deal with failure. Rather than let it define him, he used his failure to fuel him, and more importantly, self-reflect. The Corbin Burnes that toed the rubber for the NL Central Champions on October 8 in Milwaukee is not the same Corbin Burnes that was demoted in 2019. This Corbin Burnes is equipped with a nasty cutter and an attitude to boot, and the rest of the league is terrified to see what more he has in store.