From sigh to Cy: The rise of Brewers RHP Corbin Burnes

Welcome to the Cy Young award race, Corbin Burnes.

The 25-year-old right-hander has emerged from 2019 disaster to a legitimate candidate to take home the 2020 award given to the National League’s best pitcher. His numbers are astounding.

Among NL pitchers, Burnes ranks first in FIP (1.79), first in hits per nine innings (5.0), second in ERA (1.77), second in adjusted ERA+ (258),  second in K/9 (12.3) and fourth in WHIP (0.95). He’s allowed just one earned run in his last 29 2/3 innings pitched, dating back to the Brewers’ 9-1 victory over Pittsburgh on Aug. 28. In that span, Burnes has whiffed 47 batters and registered a .152 batting average against.

Just one year ago, Burnes was removed from the Brewers’ rotation after four starts.

In his first outing of the 2019 season, St. Louis mashed three homers off him. A fluke, right? It had to be. Well, nope. Burnes allowed three moonshots to Chicago and Los Angeles in his next two starts, and then another pair of dingers to the Cardinals in a mid-April meeting. He was optioned to the minor leagues shortly after and never made another start for Milwaukee.

Burnes finished the season with a 3.1 HR/9 and an 8.82 ERA — a difference of +7.05 compared to this year’s results. That’s the second-biggest improvement in ERA over two seasons since 1913.

SEASONS PITCHER ERA (1) ERA (2) ERA diff
2000-01 Roy Halladay, TOR 10.64 3.16 -7.48
2019-20 Corbin Burnes, MIL 8.82 1.77 -7.05
2001-12 Brian Matusz, BAL 10.69 4.87 -5.82
1980-81 Steve Comer, TEX 7.99 2.56 -5.43
1994-95 Greg Harris, BOS/NYY/WSH 7.99 2.61 -5.38

Even weirder, it’s hard to explain what Burnes is doing differently, besides him throwing the sinker (34.8%) more than any other pitch this season. Last year, he tossed it 3.7% of the time.

His spin rate, whiff percentage and velocity were consistent from 2019 to 2020. Opponents were just barreling his pitches at an alarming pace, registering a .414 BABIP last year compared to .268 in 2020.

2019

2020

Burnes is actually giving up a greater amount of fly balls this year (34.5%) than last year (31%). But opposing hitters mashed a home run on 38.6% of those fly balls in 2019 compared to just 2.6% this year.

In summation?

Burnes had one heck of an unlucky 2019 season. And now he’s proving what he can do for the Brewers as they fight for a third straight postseason berth in the final series of the year – a five-game set with division rival St. Louis.

NOTABLE

— Milwaukee is 17-10 after losses this season, the fourth-best winning percentage (.630) after a defeat in baseball.

— Christian Yelich owns a career .635 slugging percentage against the Cardinals, the fourth-highest clip by any batter against St. Luis since 1920. Lefty O’Doul, who suited up as a position player in the big leagues from 1928-34, had the best slugging percentage against the Redbirds (.655).

— Paul Goldschmidt, meanwhile, has the second-best slugging percentage among active players (.646) and the best on-base percentage (.444).

— Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is two hits away from collecting No. 2,000. Gary Carter leads all National League catchers with 2,092career hits.

— For the first time since July 2008, his second season in the big leagues, Ryan Braun has logged a slugging percentage over .700. Braun enters the series against St. Louis with a .745 slugging percentage this month.

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