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Corbin Burnes 2021 Year-in-Review

One of the toughest decisions to make in 2021 drafts was what exactly to do with Corbin Burnes. We hadn't seen much of him at all in the Major Leagues before the 2020 season, and then we had less than 60 innings to go off of for Burnes from that 2020 season. While his performance in 2020 was nothing short of dominant, it was still very tough to take those numbers very seriously since they came from such a small sample of data.

The field, for the most, believed in Burnes' ability and his ADP finished right around the #50 mark, making him an SP1 or SP2 in most fantasy situations. That put a lot of pressure on Burnes from the fantasy landscape, but boy oh boy did he deliver.

In 2021, Burnes threw 167 innings. He struck out 234 batters (35.6%), walked 34 (5.2%), and finished the year with a 2.43 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. At this time of this writing, the National League Cy Young Award winner has not been announced, but Burnes seems to be a lock for a top-two finish. Burnes was nothing short of completely dominant in 2021, so let's go ahead and take a deeper look at it.

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The Three Indicators

I will always lead off my pitcher analysis posts by looking at my three favorite categories. Those are strikeout rate, walk rate, and ground-ball rate. Let's first visualize K-BB% for all MLB pitchers that eclipsed 100 innings in 2021:

The best pitchers will be at the top-right of the plot, which would mean they had high strikeout rates along with low walk rates. You can see that only a couple of dots even compare with Burnes up there. Only ten pitchers here (again, 100 innings minimum) had strikeout rates above 30%, and only five of those pitchers came in with below-average walk rates. You can hover over each dot to see which pitcher it represents.

Add on to that Burnes' 49% ground-ball rate and you have a trio of numbers that we have rarely seen.

I looked back to 2015, searching for pitchers that met the following criteria

  • 100+ IP
  • 25% or greater K%
  • 7% or less BB%
  • 45% or greater GB%

I found just 50 pitchers (out of 824 pitchers that got to 100 IP) that met that criteria and Burnes led that group in strikeout rate, here's the full list:

I raised the stakes a bit here and checked this criterion

  • 100+ IP
  • 27% or greater K%
  • 6% or less BB%
  • 47% or greater GB%

This gave us just ten pitchers, and only seven unique pitchers (Clayton Kershaw has done it four times).

So yeah, it was a pretty good season for Burnes.

 

Home Run Performance

The best part about a 35% strikeout rate is that 65% of the time the hitter doesn't even have a chance to get on base. And the great thing about a 49% ground-ball rate is that the hitters that do manage to put a ball in play only have a chance to get one over the fence half the time.

Burnes took home run prevention to a ridiculous level as well, giving up seven homers to his 657 batters faced, which calculates out to one homer allowed every 94 batters faced. That is the fifth-best home run rate for pitchers throwing at least 100 innings since 2015 (Rich Hill 2016, Ranger Suarez 2021, Carlos Martinez 2018, and Chris Devenski 2016 were the only better rates - and none of them even reached 120 innings).

I'm not even really sure what to say next here, because there is simply no negative angle to even try on Burnes. He emphatically checks every single box you want to be checked in a starting pitcher. But let's forge onwards and check out his pitch arsenal anyways.

 

Pitch Arsenal

One thing we talked a lot about last offseason was the change Burnes made to his arsenal after the 2019 season. He stopped using his four-seam fastball, which had been crushed in 2019 and was the main culprit of his crazy high home run rate that season (in that season he gave up a homer on average every 13.8 batters faced, so compare that to what we just talked about and you see an almost unbelievable improvement). These changes stuck around in 2021 as he used the four-seamer just 1.5% of the time.

Here's the full breakdown from the last three seasons:

You can see there that he cut down on the sinker usage in 2021 in favor of the cutter (+21%) and curveball (+9%). Knowing what we know about the average results certain pitch types see, we would have expected the sinker to cutter transition to result in more whiffs, but fewer ground-balls. This wasn't the case with Burnes, however, as he maintained an elite ground-ball rate even with the lower sinker usage.

In this next plot I compare the ground-ball rates Burnes posted with each pitch type to the league average:

You see here that Burnes drastically outpaced the league average ground-ball rate with his slider, and significantly beat it with his cutter as well. Those two pitches plus the sinker made up 70% of his pitch arsenal, so that's how he generated the highest ground-ball rate. I'm a little bit skeptical that Burnes could do another season with those ground-ball rate son his slider and cutter, but I'm not saying it's impossible either. The guy's stuff is so unique it's hard to really expect regression to league averages.

Now let's look at the same thing with swinging-strike rates instead of ground-balls.

You can see that Burnes beat the league average in swinging-strike with all five of his pitches. He posted a 26.5% SwStr% with the slider, an absurd number, and had four pitches above 15%. He was the only pitcher in the league with at least 1,000 pitches thrown to post a 15% or better SwStr% on four different offerings. Only eight pitchers with significant pitch counts in 2021 even got to three (those names are Nathan Eovaldi, Marcus Stroman, Luis Garcia, Triston McKenzie, Shane McClanahan, Shane Bieber, and Tanner Houck if you're curious).

Burnes truly stands all by himself in terms of depth and dominance of pitch arsenal. This gives him a lot to fall back on in any given outing where he doesn't have one of his pitches working well.

 

Durability

The only question I can even think of that might almost sort of kind of maybe be a reason to keep Burnes out of the top 10 picks next year would be the question of durability. Prior to 2021, Burnes' max innings pitched in a single season was 145, and that was way back in 2017. He threw just 116.2 innings in 2018, 71 in 2019, and then the 59 in 2020 before going for 173 in 2021 (postseason included).

If Burnes showed signs of breaking down at the end of the year, that could be a bad indicator for his ability to log a season of 180+ innings in the future. This doesn't seem to be the case, however. Here is his max velocity per start in 2021:

You can see he did finish the year with one start where he didn't have much velocity, but prior to that October 3rd start his velocity was right in line with what he had been doing all year, and he actually threw hardest in early September.

Here are the swinging-strike rates by start just for good measure:

Again, a bad start to finish his season, but perfectly awesome numbers in the few starts priors. Burnes was just as dominant in September as he was earlier in the year, which is a good sign here even though we're already being overly nitpicky.

 

Conclusion

Burnes posted a historically good season in 2021, and every single data point under the hood confirms it. He checks all of the boxes:

  1. High strikeout rate
  2. Low walk rate
  3. High ground-ball rate
  4. Nasty stuff
  5. Deep arsenal to fall back on

To me, the only pitcher that is logical to consider ahead of Burnes would be Jacob deGrom, but I don't think that's going to happen next year given deGrom's major health question marks. Burnes seems primed to be the first pitcher off the board next season, and I see no reason why that would be the wrong thing to do.



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