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Officially Lit, Corbin Burnes Elite

Corbin Burnes is the forgotten Brewers prospect. Relegated to the bullpen (and Brandon Woodruff's shadow) after failing to capitalize on his starter's pedigree, Burnes had an 8.82 ERA in 2019, pairing one of baseball's best sliders, with one of its worst fastballs. However, once upon a time, it was Burnes who was the face of Milwaulkee's pitching future, not Woodruff, after a breakout 2017 campaign in the minors, and a solid audition for the majors in 2018.

But Burnes got doused in 2019 and headed into 2020 battling for an early rotation spot with Eric Lauer and Freddy Peralta. He came out of the bullpen in long chunks for three of his first four games, flashing a new pitch mix that was quickly putting the troubles of the previous year behind him. Burnes posted a 3.38 ERA and 36.4% K% in those first 16 innings but has really locked in since joining the rotation.

Entering his Wednesday afternoon start against the Detroit Tigers, Burnes was 2-o in his five starts since becoming a permanent starter, with a 2.35 ERA over 38.1 innings, carrying a 34.4% K% and 1.04 WHIP. The Tigers just got more of the same, with Burnes allowing just one hit in seven innings, striking out 11 and walking none. Following this latest dominant performance, he now has a 1.99 ERA (2.01 FIP), with a 0.90 WHIP and 36.4% K%. Let's Burnes it all down.

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A Whole New Burnes

Besides his all-world slider, there's not much about Burnes in 2020 that resembles the mess we saw last season, both in his pitch mix and demeanor. He was in total control on Wednesday afternoon from the first inning, not allowing a baserunner until a triple in the fifth inning with one out. After giving up the long hit, Burnes locked in like the terminator, striking out the next two batters on 10 pitches. He gave them nothing but fastballs and sliders, garnering one called strike and five swinging strikes, and collecting strikeouts number seven and eight.

Just like this:

The Tigers had no chance today, just like the Indians didn't have a chance last time Burnes pitched, or the Pirates and Twins the time before. This isn't a fluke; this is a breakout. Burnes has one of the best sliders in baseball and is now working with a dialed-in pitch mix that can attack (and strikeout) batters on both sides of the plate. Before we get to why the changes are putting Burnes on a track to fantasy dominance, we first have to look at what went so wrong in 2019.

 

Four Seamer Foolishness

Burnes' four-seamer was an utter disaster in 2019, allowing a .521 wOBA, .398 ISO, and a .609 wOBAcon against it. It didn't just get smashed; it got smashed in style, with a 63.2% HR/FB that was tops among pitchers (min. 50 BBE). Even though it was one of the coveted and sexy high-spin fastballs that everyone desires, with its 2656 rpm also the highest among all pitchers (min. 400 pitches).

Unfortunately, it also had only 59.8% spin-efficiency (the amount of spin that actually contributes to movement) that ranked 585th among pitchers with at least 250 pitches on the year. This could be why it was getting below-average movement on both planes, with only 2.7 inches of horizontal break. Even with premium velocity and elite spin, if you throw an old-fashioned "straight ball", it's going to get smacked. And Burnes got his smacked out of the park 13 times in 2019:

via GIPHY

Righthanders batters basically only had to worry about the trashy fastball and the elite slider. When you pair a slider that moves a ton with a fastball that doesn't move at all, it's easy to see how Burnes got hit so hard by hitters who could pick up the differences early in the ball's flight. Let's look at his plan of attack versus RHB in 2019, so we can then compare it to the changes this season:

Ignore the sinker for now, as Burnes only threw it 3.7% in 2019. We'll talk about his 2020 sinker in a minute. Looking above, you can see that his four-seamer and slider tracked well together but put yourself in the mind of the batter. Why would you even attempt a swing on the slider that won't end up in the zone and that you probably can't hit? Wouldn't it be better to pass on anything spinning and just sit on the straight ball?
Marcell made this choice, wisely:

via GIPHY

The trouble he had with his fastball got all of the attention, and rightfully so given the gaudy numbers put up against it. But while the slider hasn't ever been anything but nasty, its performance had started to drop as 2019 went on.

 

Slidepiece Getting Rusty

Not really rusty, actually, as that implies a lack of use. Quite the opposite, actually, with Burnes leaning on the slider more and more as his disastrous 2019 unfolded:

And why not more sliders? Over his 125 innings since 2018, the 30.6% SwStr% on his slider is the highest among all pitchers (500 min.) You might think that the number is elevated due to pitching most of those innings out of the bullpen (and only facing batters once) but it's actually higher this season (34.6% SwStr%) and he's been the starter in five of his eight games. And even when he's come out of the pen, his shortest appearance was still 3.2 innings.

After Burnes, Max Scherzer's slider is second among starters this season (50 pitch min.), four points behind at a 30.3% SwStr%, and after him there are six starters between 25% - 30%. Burnes is not just first in terms of whiffery, he's on a level all by himself with his slider one of the stinkiest pieces of cheese currently offered in the big leagues:

via GIPHY

The slidepiece gets elite movement on both planes but every year has brought more and more movement on the horizontal, moving from 1.5 inches of break in 2018 to 2.7 inches in 2019, to now 3.5 inches in 2020. Burnes has played into this increase, with the pitch ending up deeper and deeper on the glove side. However, the command clearly suffered in 2019.

2018

2019

2020

 

Going back to the straightness of his fastball, it's easier to see how the lack of movement makes it a lot easier for batters to lay off the slider - especially for RHB, who faced 89% of sliders and four-seamers. Thinking like a righty, you're virtually assured of only getting one of the two pitches. One comes in fast but moves very little. The other moves a whole lot and is usually really, really hard to hit. Why would batters even try to mess with the slider that often doesn't end in the zone, when they could just wait for a fastball coming in hot and straight?

Using Alex Chamberlain's Pitch Leaderboard, we can use rolling graphs to better see the degradation of the slider as 2019 went on, both in it's swing-and-miss ability, as well as the quality of contact against it.

2019 SwStr%

2019 xwOBAcon

 

Taking Out the Trash

Thankfully, Burnes has put the four-seamer on ice in 2020, with Burnes now using a combination of sinkers (37.4%) and cutters (25.4%) instead. Just like his four-seamer, the sinker still has elite spin, with its 2697 rpm trailing only Trevor Bauer (and his spin doctor voodoo) among all starting pitchers in 2020. And the cutter is even higher, with its 2907 rpm barely edging out Bauer for the highest.

That's been the first key to Burnes's current and future breaking out. He used to feature a fastball that barely moved, got totally hammered, and was making his best pitch worse. Now he utilizes two high-spin fastballs that move in different directions, with the sinker moving in on righties to his glove side, while his cutter tunnels more with his slider. This keeps righties from cheating on his slider, forcing them to defend both sides of the plate.

The cutter is used more versus LHB and there's also a much-improved curveball that we'll get to shortly, but here's his plan of attack versus RHB, a stark contrast from 2019:

 

Focusing on the slider and sinker, you can see the far different look right-handers are now getting compared to the slider/four-seam combination that he used in 2019. The sinker and slider track together as they approach the decision point, with batters then having to choose between the nasty slider falling down and out or a 96 mph sinker busting them on the inner third of the plate.

Here's what the combo looks like in action:

Burnes allowed a .340 wOBA to RHP in 2019 but is down to a .240 wOBA so far in 2020. That kind of drop is possible when you're allowing 75.9% poor-contact and striking out 35.4% of the righties you face.

 

Fixing the Real Problem

Figuring out how to handle right-handers is one thing but what he really needed was a solution to his left-hander problems. Burnes allowed a .513 wOBA to LHB in 2019, giving up 8 home runs in 1o2 PA, while walking 17. Just bad. Bad, bad, bad.

Much like his struggles versus RHB, a lot of the issues that Burnes was having go back to the terribly straight four-seamer that he kept serving up on a platter. It certainly wasn't any better versus LHB, allowing a .621 wOBAcon and 95.2 mph average exit velocity.

Coming out of the bullpen, Burnes was still mostly a two-pitch pitcher to left-handers, mixing in about 25% curveballs and changeups. Not that he should have necessarily been throwing more curveballs and changeups, as batters had a .610 wOBAcon against his curve and a .580 wOBAcon against his changeup.

This year is a different story versus the wrong-handers, with no significant differences in his splits. His strikeout-rates and wOBA allowed are virtually the same to both, and his 3.35 FIP vs. LHB is actually over half of a run lower than versus RHB.

We've already talked about the obvious change, with the replacement of his terrible four-seamer with the sinker/cutter combo. And just as adding the sinker gave him a pitch that attacked the opposite side of the plate as his slider when facing RHB, the sinker finally gave him something that he could use to work away from LHB, besides the lightly-used changeup.

The curveball and changeup have both been much better in 2020 and have deserved their uptick in usage. The changeup has a .209 xwOBA against it, pairing well with his sinker, as both pitches move away from lefties. And the curveball has been even better, allowing just a .067 wOBA and .044 xwOBA against it, as it and the cutter give Burnes plate-coverage on the middle- and inner third of the plate.

The Pitching Ninja liked the cutter against the Tigers today:

That gives Burnes four effective pitches to use against LHB (without using the slider) with the mix now allowing ways to attack both sides of the plate.:

 

An Ace's Arsenal

2019 was an epic failure but Burnes now has the total package to match his pedigree and slider. He has elite velocity, five legitimate pitches he can use to attack batters on both sides of the plate, and his slider is - no exaggeration - one of the best pitches in baseball. Burnes is basically announcing that he's a running pre-ace starter kit and we're nearing the end of the time where the world doesn't know it.

I have Burnes as a top-15 pitcher for the rest of the season. If that sounds ridiculous then I'll just wait right here until you can find me 15 pitchers you'd rather have for the next four weeks. It's too late to trade for him this season, but dynasty players would be wise to make him a priority acquisition for the offseason. And looking way ahead to redraft leagues in 2021, Burnes is the type of player (with the type of stuff) to attract a lot of hype, with his draft price in winter 2020 likely to be much lower than it'll be in Spring 2021.



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