After emerging as one of the top starters in the National League in a COVID-19-shortened 2020 season, Corbin Burnes is off to a historic start to his 2021 campaign. Is the talk of Corbin Burnes winning the NL Cy Young Award legit?
I identified the Milwaukee Brewers starter as one of The Game Day’s Top 5 early breakouts for the 2021 MLB season. Burnes made baseball history Tuesday, becoming the first pitcher to ever record 40 strikeouts without issuing a walk through his first four starts of a season.
Corbin Burnes Breakout: How He’s Grown
In 24.1 innings, Burnes is 2-1 and leads the league in strikeouts and several other major statistical categories including a 0.37 ERA, 1107 ERA+, 0.69 FIP and 0.329 WHIP.
While his numbers have been uncanny compared to the rest of the game’s pitchers, Burnes’ dominance should not come as a surprise.
Corbin Burnes: Becoming A Starting Pitcher
Burnes was MLB.com’s No. 2-ranked prospect heading into 2018, where he made his major-league debut. The right-hander was initially used as a long reliever going 7-0 with a 2.61 ERA in 38 innings. He was also impressive in the postseason that year for the Brewers, tossing four scoreless innings in the NLDS, before recording the final six outs of Game 6 of the NLCS in the following series.
The potential was always there. However, Burnes endured a rough 2019 campaign, where he lost his spot in the Brewers’ rotation after just three starts. Burnes also dealt with shoulder issues, which led to a 9.00 ERA and 11 home runs allowed on the year in 26 appearances out of the bullpen.
But Burnes would bounce back last season, becoming a starter in Milwaukee once again, going 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA. He also struck out 88 batters in 59.2 innings, while finishing 6th in the NL Cy Young voting.
This set the table for his great start in 2021. And now, the real question is, can he sustain this dominance over the course of a full season?
Corbin Burnes Breakout: Could He Win 2021 NL Cy Young Award?
Although it would be unfair to expect this level of spotlessness from Burnes the rest of the way, he has arguably been one of MLB’s best starters over the course of his last 16 starts dating back to last year.
Burnes also features a dangerous repertoire of six pitches:
- a 96 mph (on average) four-seam fastball
- a 96 mph sinker
- a 91 mph changeup
- a 93 mph cutter
- a 87 mph slider
- and 81 mph curveball.
According to Baseball Savant, Burnes has a 42.1% whiff percentage this year, which is almost eight ticks higher than his total last season. He is also throwing a first-pitch strike 67.1% of the time, 9% higher than his career average. Burnes is giving up a mere 4.8%-barrel percentage and even if these numbers even out, he will still have above-average numbers in this category, as he was a top pitcher in the league last season with a 7.8%-barrel rate.
As long as Burnes is locating his elite stuff at anything close to his current rate, he will continue to be one of the league’s toughest pitchers to face. Burnes’ command has been on-point, given his ability to pound the strike zone.
If Burnes can stay healthy for a full season, it will be hard to imagine him not being in the Cy Young conversation in the NL. While Mets ace Jacob deGrom has solidified himself as the best pitcher in the league since the start of 2018, this is the first time he will have a serious threat coming for the title.
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