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Corbin Burnes Went From Bad To Elite, And He’s Taking The Brewers’ Rotation With Him

When the Milwaukee Brewers ended their six-year playoff drought in 2018, they did it with a very particular formula borrowed from another recent champion: great defense, speed around the basepaths and — perhaps most importantly — a lights-out bullpen. Highlighted by Josh Hader and his unhittable fastball, the Brewers’ pitching strategy revolved around getting a lead for the relievers as soon as possible and trusting them to slam the door. That season, Milwaukee tied the Los Angeles Dodgers as the team that scored first most often (102 games); it also ranked sixth in MLB with 41.7 percent of its innings pitched by relievers. The Brewers’ starters were so irrelevant that the team burned southpaw Wade Miley after just one batter in Game 5 of the NLCS, instead using the bullpen the rest of the game, simply to trick the Dodgers into using a righty-heavy lineup.1


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The current Brewers still have plenty of speed and a strong defense. But in a recent development, their pitching has been carried by the starters, not the bullpen. In particular, ace Corbin Burnes — who was downright horrible as recently as 2019 — has emerged as one of the leading pitchers in baseball over the last two seasons. And the newfound potential for a dominant, Burnes-led rotation offers Milwaukee a different twist on its winning formula, in what looks to be a strong bid for a franchise-record fourth straight postseason appearance.

A graph axis against a red background with four arrows moving in different directions. The two in the middle help make up the lines in a baseball, which is overlaid on the graph.

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You wouldn’t have necessarily expected that turn of events just a few years ago. Even as the Brewers were winning 89 games and making the wild-card game, 2019 was very much a season to forget for Burnes. The 24-year-old right-hander had been Baseball America’s 46th-ranked prospect heading into the year, thanks to a 2.61 ERA as a rookie in 2018 and command of four different pitches classified by scouts as average or better. But he allowed at least four earned runs (and at least two homers) in each of his first four starts to begin the season, leaving him with a 10.70 ERA by mid-April. After what manager Craig Counsell termed a “long conversation” about keeping Burnes in the rotation, Milwaukee sent its young pitcher down to Triple-A for a few weeks to work on his game. Burnes was slightly better upon returning to the majors in a bullpen role, but not by much: he had a 7.76 ERA in 28 appearances over the rest of the season. All told, it was a nightmare campaign that had Burnes questioning everything about his process.

Seeking a change, Burnes began working with a sports psychologist to overhaul his daily routine and mental approach to the game. He also dramatically altered his style on the mound, significantly changing how often he mixed that repertoire of above-average pitches. According to FanGraphs data, Burnes went from throwing either a four-seam fastball or a slider 86 percent of the time in 2018 and 2019 to using those pitches on just 18 percent of his throws in 2020 and 2021. In their place, he increased his use of cutters, sinkers and change-ups from under 5 percent of pitches in 2018 and 2019 to 73 percent of his pitches in 2020 and 2021.

Burnes now lives on a diet of sinkers and cutters

Share of all pitches for Corbin Burnes by season and type (according to Pitch Info classifications)

Fastball Off-Speed
Year 4-Seam Sinker Cutter Change-up Slider Curveball
2021 2% 13% 50% 13% 11% 11%
2020 7 31 30 11 13 9
2019 53 3 0 4 31 8
2018 58 0 0 0 33 7

Note: Pitch shares may not add perfectly to 100 percent.

Source: FanGraphs

These changes are particularly notable because sinkers have been falling out of favor across baseball for years now, both because they are generally less effective (they generate fewer whiffs and are more dangerous when hit in the air) and they are less conducive to what’s known as “tunneling,” or making different pitch types look similar to the batter as deep into their trajectories as possible. But for Burnes, the results have been undeniable. He went from a 3.39 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a whopping 2.2 home runs allowed per nine innings with his old approach to a 5.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just 0.3 home runs allowed per nine innings with his new one. He also went from being one of the worst pitchers in baseball to the ninth-best in 2020, according to wins above replacement.2 And so far this year, Burnes has been even better, ranking third in WAR behind Jacob deGrom of the Mets and Gerrit Cole of the Yankees — for now dispelling concerns that his 2020 performance was nothing but a small-sample fluke in a deeply strange season.

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Over the past two seasons, Burnes trails only deGrom (who is in the midst of a historic stretch of pitching dominance) and Cleveland’s Shane Bieber (who unanimously won the 2020 AL Cy Young Award) in total value among pitchers:

Baseball’s best pitchers since the start of 2020

Most valuable pitchers by wins above replacement (WAR) in the 2020 and 2021 MLB seasons

Pitcher Team(s) ERA- FIP- Pitching WAR
Shane Bieber CLE 43 55 4.4
Jacob deGrom NYM 42 42 4.3
Corbin Burnes MIL 36 37 3.7
Yu Darvish SD, CHC 49 58 3.7
Gerrit Cole NYY 57 66 3.4
Trevor Bauer LAD, CIN 47 70 3.4
Brandon Woodruff MIL 60 63 3.3
Aaron Nola PHI 73 66 3.2
Hyun Jin Ryu TOR 60 73 3.1
Zack Wheeler PHI 73 78 2.8

ERA- and FIP- both measure pitching effectiveness relative to a league average of 100, where lower is better.

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

And Burnes isn’t the only Brewer near the top of the list. Rotation-mate Brandon Woodruff — who has a slightly longer track record of success than Burnes (he was very good in 2019 as well) — ranks seventh in WAR since the start of 2020, providing Milwaukee with an unlikely pair of the top aces in the game. Along with the rapidly improving Freddy Peralta, Burnes and Woodruff’s performances have combined to give the Brewers the fourth-best starting rotation in MLB this year according to WAR — which, if it holds, would be the best showing by Milwaukee starters in franchise history. (The previous bests were fifth-place finishes by the Brew Crew rotations of 1988 and 1992, led by the likes of Teddy Higuera, Bill Wegman, Jaime Navarro and Chris Bosio.) Gone are the days of the Brewers’ bullpen carrying more than its share of the pitching load; Milwaukee now ranks 11th in the share of innings pitched by starters, with the rotation throwing nearly 60 percent of the available innings this season.

That’s been a welcome change, too, because the Brewers’ pen hasn’t been quite as lights-out as it was in 2018. That year, Milwaukee relievers ranked sixth in ERA-minus, fourth in FIP-minus and 11th in WAR. This season, they rank 22nd in ERA-minus, 28th in FIP-minus and 19th in WAR. While Hader continues to be dominant as a closer (he’s allowed only one hit and zero runs in 6⅔ innings), 2020 NL Rookie of the Year Devin Williams has struggled (5.87 ERA) in the early going, as have many of the team’s depth relievers. The good news, however, is that we’re still in ridiculously small-sample land — and the Brewers’ pen did rank sixth in WAR last year, so it’s fair to expect some sort of improvement from here on out.

If Williams does eventually bounce back to his 2020 form, Hader keeps throwing smoke and Burnes and Woodruff continue to be ace-level hurlers, the Brewers’ pitching could really be something to reckon with in the postseason. Even with Burnes sidelined by an oblique injury for the playoffs last year, Milwaukee pitchers held the fearsome Dodgers to a .637 OPS in the wild-card round.3 The biggest concern for the Brewers right now is an offense that ranks 15th in runs per game and 23rd in OPS, with 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich on the shelf with a back injury. But the emergence of Burnes as an elite starter gives the Brewers something they’ve had only fleetingly over the years — going back to the days of Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets and beyond — and it might be the piece that’s been missing from Milwaukee’s World Series formula these past few seasons.

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Footnotes

  1. It didn’t exactly work — L.A. won the game 5-2 anyway, and later captured the series in seven contests.

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  3. Losing to the Dodgers is becoming kind of a thing for Milwaukee; L.A. has beaten the Brewers in two of the past three postseasons.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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