Milwaukee Brewers: 2021 A Prove it Year for Corbin Burnes

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 14: Corbin Burnes #39 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches in the third inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during game two of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - SEPTEMBER 14: Corbin Burnes #39 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches in the third inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during game two of a doubleheader at Miller Park on September 14, 2020 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

To say that Corbin Burnes has had a roller coaster of a career in his three MLB seasons would be an understatement. To refresh your memory on his career so far, he came up to the majors in 2018 to bolster an already strong bullpen and was stellar, posting a 2.61 ERA and a perfect 7-0 record out of the pen. In 2019, he made the starting rotation but couldn’t keep the ball in the park, giving up 17 home runs on the season and finishing with an ERA of 8.82. Last year, he spent plenty of time in the Milwaukee Brewers’ pitching lab in Arizona and came out with some wicked stuff that he used to finish sixth in Cy Young voting in the shortened season.

At 26 years old, he is still a pretty young player but has reached an interesting crossroads at this point in his career. There are three basic ways that this could go. He could continue what he did last year, utilizing all of his best stuff that he developed and honed in the past couple of offseasons and be the Brewers ace alongside Brandon Woodruff for years to come. 2020 could prove to be a fluke as it was a short season, and hitters could figure him out as they did in 2019 and start hitting it out of the yard on him again. Or he could be somewhere in the middle and prove to be a serviceable but not great pitcher. We’ll go through each possibility, starting with the worst-case scenario and working our way up.

I’m not usually one to be a downer, but there’s always the chance that they go into a season and just can’t find their footing. We saw it in 2019 with Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar, and Burnes himself and again in 2020 with Omar Narvaez and Justin Smoak. The biggest concern is the home runs that he gave up that year, but he seemed to have fixed it in 2020.

Burnes throws hard. His average fastball and sinker velocity is 96 miles per hour as a starter, and when you throw that hard, the ball comes off the bat harder when someone makes solid contact. In 2019, batters hit .425 and slugged .823 against the four-seam fastball, and 13 of the 17 home runs came off of it after it was his best pitch in 2018 when the average and slugging numbers were just .174 and .244, respectively. Those are scary numbers and ones that are hard to forget about when we are only one season removed from them.

Getting a bit more positive, he could prove to be an average pitcher and play out his career as a third or fourth starter. This is what Baseball Reference’s projections are predicting for this season. They project a 4.35 ERA and an 8-6 record. We won’t spend much time on this outcome because it’s the most boring, and that projection is simply based off his production numbers and see his stellar 2020 as an outlier.

The reason for optimism that Burnes could be a true ace for this Milwaukee Brewers’ staff is not based off of his ERA, WHIP, or any other simple numbers from 2020. The reason is that he completely changed the way he pitched in 2020.

After the fastball getting repeatedly crushed in 2019, he completely threw it in the garbage, throwing only 25 of them in 2020, just 2.5 percent of his total pitches. He replaced it with a sinker that he throws with the same velocity and a ridiculous 93-mile-per-hour cutter. Both of these pitches have a downward angle which makes it harder to hit them in the air and over the fence. While the fastball is often up in the zone where hitters can get under it, the cutter and sinker are thrown down to induce ground balls.

Hitters hit .250 on sinkers and slugged .406, showing results that were an improvement from the fastball. The cutter was even better, with a batting average of .162 and a slugging percentage of .203 against it. Of course, he still has his wipeout slider, which had an absolutely unreal whiff percentage of 60.3 percent.

Another reason for optimism is that all of his pitches have continually grown in spin rate each year since he came to the big leagues. When he came up in 2018, his slider had a spin rate of 2679 RPM, his curveball was 2776, and his cutter was 2715. In 2020, those numbers were 2909, 2963, and 2919. He could hit 3000 this season, which is in the absolute best of the best range.

Finally, he’s had tons of success this spring. In five games and 16 1/3 innings, he dominated opponents with a 1.65 ERA, picking up right where he left off last season. He’s also working even more on his changeup and curveball, which gives him even more of a mix for hitters that makes it more difficult for them to sit on something coming in hard. Keeping them guessing with speed and movement could make him even more unhittable than last season.

This Milwaukee Brewers’ staff will lean heavily on Burnes as a top starter next to Woodruff, and he could even surpass him as the number one guy on the staff. These guys have to potential to be one of the best 1-2 punches in the league and give the Crew a real chance at a deep playoff run.

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So what outcome do you think is most likely for Corbin Burnes in 2021 and beyond? Do you think he can be the ace of this Milwaukee Brewers staff? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @DairylandXpress.