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Champ or Chump - Corbin Burnes and Trent Thornton

By this point of the season, you probably have some injuries, under-performances, or squandered sleeper picks cluttering your roster. You're also probably intrigued by a few potential breakouts on the waiver wire. Who should you keep moving forward, and who should you pick up with any newfound roster spots? This column seeks to answer that question by performing deep dives into a player's advanced stats, ultimately concluding whether a player is a "Champ" worthy of a coveted roster spot or a "Chump" you should be looking to upgrade.

Nearly every owner could improve their pitching staff this time of year, so let's kick things off with two pitchers approaching 40% K% rates on the young season. Corbin Burnes has gone from mediocre long reliever to interesting starter seemingly overnight, though his recent performance against the Cubs has some owners shying away. Nevertheless, Statcast suggests that there's something there. Trent Thornton doesn't have the buzz of a top prospect, but Statcast likes him too.

Keep in mind, our Champ / Chump conclusions are based on whether we think a player will outperform their expectations. For example, a pitcher we view as "Tier 2" can be a Champ if they're seen as a Tier 3 pitcher, or they could be a Chump if they're perceived as a Tier 1 pitcher. All ownership rates are from Yahoo! leagues unless otherwise noted. Let's take a closer look at Burnes and Thornton, shall we?

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Corbin Burnes (RP, MIL)

16% Owned

Burnes has an ugly 9.90 ERA in his 10 IP this season, though his 2.15 xFIP and 39.1% K% suggest that he's been much better than that. The difference between his actual performance and peripheral stats is a 75% HR/FB, which he won't sustain because quite frankly nobody is that bad. The question is whether the real Burnes is worthy of fantasy consideration, and this author believes he is.

Let's start by peeking at his repertoire. Burnes has five pitches: fastball, slider, sinker, curve, and change. His heat is averaging 95mph this season, so he throws gas. More importantly, Burnes leads all pitchers in fastball spin rate, clocking in at 2,858 RPM. High spin rates are associated with Ks, and Burnes's heater has a 10.9% SwStr% so far despite a very high 60.4% Zone%. It's a small sample, but he also clocked in at 2,560 RPM (15th) and 10.6% SwStr% as a reliever in 38 big league innings last season. This looks like a big-time fastball.

Notably, high-spin fastballs are also known to induce pop-ups. Burnes has plenty of spin, but his heater has not allowed a ton of flies (23.9% FB%) yet. Still, the flies it has allowed have included a good number of pop-ups (25% IFFB%). Burnes could be a low-BABIP, low-HR/FB guy with elite spin if his profile holds, which makes him a very intriguing waiver add.

Fastballs alone don't produce elite K% rates, but Burnes has another lethal weapon in his slider. Its 39% SwStr% this season is out of this world, and its 24.6% rate from 2018 suggests that it's a legitimate strikeout pitch. Burnes doesn't typically place it in the zone (31.7% Zone% this season), but it's a lethal pitch to put hitters away as long as hitters chase it at anything close to its current 50% rate.

Unfortunately, it all goes downhill from there. Burnes has a sinker, but it's not obvious why (5.6% SwStr%, 22.2% Zone%). He has a changeup, but it's averaging 92.2mph for less than a 3% differential with his fastball. His curve is okay (10.2% SwStr% career), but its high Zone% (59.2%) and low chase rate (25%) make it more of a bendy fastball than a second put-away pitch. In short, Burnes has two elite pitches, a passable curve, and blah.

Burnes's minor league history is interesting, but mixed. He was great at Double-A in 2017, posting a 2.10 ERA and 2.76 xFIP in 85 2/3 IP. He also had a solid ratio of Ks (24.9%) to walks (5.9%). Graduating to Triple-A didn't go as well, as his ERA ballooned to 5.15 (4.37 xFIP) in 78 2/3 IP. His Ks went down slightly (23.6%), while his free passes increased substantially (9%). Luck metrics such as BABIP and strand rate were the biggest differentiator between the two campaigns, though he flashed a skill to limit the long ball at both stops (2.7% HR/FB at Double-A, 8.9% at Triple-A).

In summation, Burnes is an intriguing arm backed by a strong team, so he should be owned in a lot more than 16% of leagues. He also carries RP-eligibility if you play in a format that cares about such things. That said, you might want to wait a week to pick him up or start him on your bench. His next two starts come against the terrifying Dodgers lineup and a strong Cardinals unit, which should tell us a lot about how he stacks up against the best of the best.

Verdict: Champ (based on current 16% ownership)

 

Trent Thornton (SP, TOR)

18% Owned

Thornton is actually quite similar to Burnes. The 25-year-old (Burnes is 24) is also racking up Ks (39.5% K%), though his walk rate so far (5.3%) is considerably lower than his Brewer counterpart's (8.7%). He also doesn't have a 75% HR/FB, allowing Thornton's ERA (1.69) to be slightly better than his peripherals (2.38 xFIP) in his 10 2/3 IP.

Also like Burnes, Thornton has a high-spin fastball (2,366 RPM) generating an above average SwStr% (8.7%). He's averaging 93.8mph on the gun, and so far the pitch is excellent at inducing pop-ups (41.2% FB% 57.1% IFFB%). Two starts is a very small sample size and we can't supplement it with MLB relief work like we could with Burnes, but the early returns are promising. This fastball looks like a legitimate weapon.

Thornton also has a nasty breaking pitch to complement his heater, though in this case, it's his curve. Its 3,064 RPM spin rate is fourth in MLB, behind two relievers and Burnes. Thornton has thrown nearly four times more curves than Burnes, so it's fair to say that he has the highest curve spin rate among MLB starters. It's generating an 18.2% SwStr% and getting chased at a 39.3% clip despite almost never finding the strike zone (15.2% Zone%). It's probable that the offering's elite spin tricks hitters into offering at a pitch they shouldn't, creating an avenue for long-term success.

The rest of Thornton's arsenal leaves something to be desired, though there is more promise here than with Burnes. His change is probably the best pitch here (33.3% SwStr% and 40% chase rate), but it's never a strike (16.7% Zone%) and Thornton doesn't seem comfortable using it (3.6% usage). His cutter has a good SwStr% (12.5%), but neither the Zone% (18.8%) nor the chase rate (23.1%) to be consistent. His splitter is similar, offering a 14.3% SwStr% but 35.7% Zone% and 22.2% chase. His slider is used just 3.6% of the time and has a 0% Zone%, suggesting that it may be something that just slipped out of his hand.

Thornton also has more MiLB experience than Burnes, all in the Houston system. He first reached Double-A in 2016, posting a 2.35 ERA and 2.98 xFIP in 46 IP. He succeeded mainly by not walking anyone (2.8% BB%), as his 19.6% K% wasn't special. He repeated the level in 2017, logging a 6.06 ERA but 2.57 xFIP in 16 1/3 IP. That earned him a shot at Triple-A, where his 5.09 ERA was bad but his 4.24 xFIP reasonable over 115 IP. He still didn't walk anyone (4.3% BB%) or rack up Ks (17.7% K%).

Something clicked in 2018, as Thornton finally posted an above average K% (23.6%) at the expense of a few more walks (6% BB%). It resulted in a better ERA (4.42) and xFIP (3.93) over 124 1/3 IP, but the Astros decided to trade him to Toronto in the Aledmys Diaz deal. Thornton earned a rotation spot, and now he's on the fantasy radar.

Thornton has the Rays and Twins lined up for his next two starts, making his immediate value higher than Burnes. However, Burnes throws harder, has more of an MLB track record, and pitches for a better team. Both arms are dynamic, so holding both is reasonable if you have the room. Otherwise, go with Thornton for the short-term and Burnes if you're looking for a contribution over the whole season.

Verdict: Champ (based on current 19% ownership)

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