Corbin Burnes’s Start to the Season Is Nothing Less Than Magical

Corbin Burnes has 40 strikeouts, zero walks and a record start to the season that feels like it might never stop. So how is he pulling this off?
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It is just late enough in the season for magical thinking to be unsustainable. This is not to say that it is wrong to hope for ridiculous things—hope for whatever you like!—but simply that it is harder to pin those hopes on the miracle of small sample sizes. In early April, you might be able to hold on to a daydream that maybe he’ll get on base every single game. In late April? Too much has happened. You can reasonably hope for greatness. You can no longer hope for magic.

Unless, that is, you are looking for magic this year from Corbin Burnes.

The Brewers' starter has 40 strikeouts, zero walks and a record start to the season that feels like it might never stop. No one has put up these numbers before—not just to begin a season, but at all, over any four starts. No pitcher has ever struck out so many batters without a single walk.

Apr 3, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA;  Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes (39) throws a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning at American Family Field.

Burnes has been almost unhittable. He’s allowed just one run in 24 innings—a solo homer from his first start of the year—and has a best-in-baseball 0.37 ERA. His cutter has emerged as perhaps the finest in the game right now. Even in light of his breakout season last year, all of this represents a stunning improvement, particularly if you remember his disastrous stint as a reliever in 2019. How is he pulling this off? is a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But the most illustrative answer might come from looking not at his greatest highlights but at his closest call.

The 26-year-old has faced 85 batters in his four starts. Of those, 10 have made it to a three-ball count, and Burnes has struck out six of them. He’s allowed just one hitter to get a count to 3-0—which he promptly turned into one of the aforementioned strikeouts. So as Burnes sits on a record stretch of strikeouts-to-walks, here is how he handled his closest brush with a walk, which became another of his strikeouts.

First, a little bit of context: The Brewers were leading the Cardinals, 1–0, in the sixth inning on April 8. Burnes was cruising when Tommy Edman stepped to the plate. The pitcher started this plate appearance by missing just a tiny bit with his changeup before two rare misses outside with his cutter. On 3-0, however, he went with the cutter again:

Burnes didn’t really have a cutter prior to last year. He had a four-seam fastball with some natural cut motion to it, but pitch-classifying systems didn’t call it a cutter, and he didn’t, either. But after his struggles in 2019—which were largely due to hitters hammering his four-seamer—he made some adjustments to turn the pitch into more of a traditional cutter. “The four-seamer has basically become a cutter that he commands, is probably the best way to say it,” Brewers pitching coach Chris Hook told FanGraphs last week. Earlier in his career, the four-seamer had made up about half of his pitches, with his slider next at about 30%. In 2020, however, his pitch mix became much more balanced. He began to throw his sinker much more and his new cutter almost as much—33% and 32% of the time, respectively—while still mixing in his slider, curve and changeup. That generally worked for him.

But his cutter has looked even better in 2021. For one thing, he’s throwing it harder, sitting at about 96 mph. (That’s the highest cutter velo in baseball for anyone not named Emmanuel Clase.) And the movement is more tightly controlled. He’s now throwing the pitch about half of the time and, clearly, it’s working for him.

So on 3-1, Burnes turned to the cutter again. This time, Edman swung and missed.

At 3-2, it was time for the putaway pitch. Don’t let his increased reliance on the cutter fool you—he has plenty of options and, if anything, leaning on his cutter more this year has allowed his other pitches to play up. So maybe you’d expect him to go to his slider? (It’s resulted in a strikeout more than half the time when used in two-strike counts this year.) Or maybe his curve?? (It’s done the same.) Or maybe his sinker??? (It’s been used as a putaway pitch more than either the slider or the curve.)

No. He trusted the cutter enough to go with it one more time. And he was right:

This, again, was the only time Burnes has seriously flirted with a walk in 2021, and it ended up being a display of just how much he can do with his cutter. All relevant baseball logic indicates that this will not last forever—eventually he’ll give up a walk, because, well, he has to. But you’d be forgiven for indulging in some magical thinking to the contrary. Burnes has earned it.

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