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Twenty-six times that season, Corbin Burnes had stood on the hill and had a chance to throw four ball. Every time he went on strike. It wasn’t until the 127th batsman he faced that Burnes gave out a walk.
Burnes, a right-handed Milwaukee Brewers, swears he doesn’t even think about it. He has a historical dislike for bases on balls.
“If you get 3-0 and you say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go with this guy,’ you’re already hosed,” Burnes said recently. “At this point you were already running with the guy.”
Burns usually recover from a strike. He had beaten 49 batters without taking a walk before missing two starts with an unspecified injury – he confirmed on Wednesday that he had an asymptomatic case of coronavirus – and he started the game against St. Louis Cardinals with nine others. In doing so, he broke the Major League records for most strikeouts to start a season without a walk (51 by Dodgers closer to Kenley Jansen in 2017) and most consecutive strikeouts without a walk at any point in a season (56 by Curt Schilling from the Diamondbacks in 2002 and from Gerrit Cole of the Yankees this season).
But all streaks come to an end at some point, and Burnes finally gave out a walk in the fifth inning of Thursday’s game that Tommy Edman missed with a 95 mph cutter. Burnes got out of the inning but was relieved by the start of the sixth inning. The Brewers lost 2-0.
In a season where many pitching records would fall at this rate, Burnes may not be at the top while Cole’s 56 strikeout streak is still active. But Burnes, who has become Milwaukee’s ace, is safe for at least a few more days because Cole served on Wednesday.
“I think he may be better than anything I can do in a video game right now,” said Brewers reliever Devin Williams, National League rookie of the year last season, of Burnes. Williams added, “It’s crazy to see because he has so many pitches and they’re all elite. He has the curveball, slider, cutter, a change that he throws at 92. It’s kind of ridiculous, honestly. I don’t know how anyone gets hit by this guy. “
Not many do. Opponents scored just 0.152 ahead of Burnes in April, whose earned run average is 1.57. He has recorded at least nine strikeouts in all six starts and excelled himself in a season of extreme power pitching in the majors. Since the beginning of the 2020 season, the 26-year-old Burnes had fanned 39.4 percent of the opposing players on Thursday, followed by Jacob deGrom of the Mets (41.3 percent) among the pitchers with at least 80 innings. His 1.92 ERA with 1.75 was also the second best after deGrom.
“The speed at which he throws during the game is pretty incredible – the awesome stuff, the strike throw and the swings he gets consistently was amazing,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell. “We’re still so early in the season and we still have a long, long way to go. But that was no accident. “
What followed, however, was a particularly difficult year 2019. That season, Burnes’ second of the majors, he had an ERA of 8.82, the highest any Brewers pitcher had ever scored with at least 40 innings. It wasn’t the first time he had problems: Burnes had gone 4-0 with 6.18 ERA in 2014 as a freshman at Saint Mary’s College in California
His college coach Eric Valenzuela found Burnes a spot in a summer league in the Hamptons, a step below the prestigious Cape Cod League but an environment in which to shine.
“Given his speed, I thought he could possibly dominate this league and come back with some confidence because I think he lost some – anyone would if you got hit in the chin as a freshman in Division I,” said Valenzuela, now the head coach at Long Beach State. “He went out there and became pitcher of the year and number 1 in the league.”
Two strong seasons followed: Burnes and Tony Gonsolin now promoting the Dodgers and leading Saint Mary’s to their first NCAA region in 2016. The Brewers drafted Burnes in the fourth round in June, and two years later he worked high lever innings in the National League Championship Series.
The regression that followed after Burnes apparently became established has many historical precedents. A recent example, he said, was Lucas Giolito of the Chicago White Sox, who at a similar point in his career allowed the most-deserved runs in the majors and formed the 2019 All-Star team next season.
“He changed his arm movement, shortened it, and now he has a phenomenal change and a good fastball and he’s gone,” Burnes said of Giolito. “I think everyone has to figure out what their personal thing is, and once you’ve mastered it, you’re good to go.”
For Burnes, this meant sharpening his mental approach to a sports psychologist and doubling his best playing field. As bad as his 2019 stats were, he knew he still had an elite slider. What if he did more with that pitch?
“My thought was to throw two different sliders and when we started spring training the harder slider with the shallower depth turned into the cutter,” he said. “It was actually thrown very much like I threw my four-seam fastball in the past, just a minor adaptation to baseball, and as I’ve become more familiar with it over the past year and a half, I’ve been in that too Able to find ways to increase speed further while maintaining the same movement profile. “
The result is a cutter divergent so explosively – from left-handed to right-handed – that he drew comparisons to Mariano Riveras on the Brewers’ television show on Monday. As of 2020, Burnes’ cutter has averaged 94.3 mph, the fastest of its kind in the majors, according to Fangraphs. This season he’s used it more than 50 percent of the time.
“Of course I’m biased, but I think it’s the best field in baseball right now,” said Valenzuela. “I don’t see a better place in the big leagues. He can throw back doors on the left, he can throw away on the right, and they just can’t hit it. You cannot make good contact with it. “
At the start of Thursday’s game, Batters had hit .163 from Burnes’ cutter since 2020, with a home run in 129 bats. His cutter and sinker – moving in the opposite direction – force the batsman to consider the slopes both in the grip and at the end of the club. Add that combo to Burnes’ other pitches and impeccable commands, and you have an updated version of Roy Halladay, the Hall of Fame right-handed for Toronto and Philadelphia.
As with Burnes, Halladay’s performance dropped drastically after an initial success. He adjusted his mechanics and mental preparation, cutting his ERA by more than seven runs from one season to the next. He trusted his things so much that he never tried to get thugs to hunt pitches outside the zone.
“I felt like I scored two goals – 2-0, 2-1 – if they didn’t go along it would be strike three,” Halladay said in 2017, a few months before he died in a plane crash. “I wanted something that they either had to swing and come into play or it would be a strike.”
The comparison doesn’t fit perfectly; Halladay parted ways with exceptional durability and Burnes has only scored four outs in 19 career starts after the sixth inning. But there are echoes from Halladay when Burnes outlines his approach.
“The biggest thing I’ve done this off-season is the attitude,” he said. “It could be 3-0, I really don’t care – for me it’s 0-0, it’s 0-1, it’s 0-2, I’m attacking. In the pitcher count, I go for batsman. There’s no such thing as “Oh, I’m 2-0, 3-0 here, this guy is a good fastball hitter” – no. Once you fall into this trap, you are done. “
Burnes found his way out of the traps, in college and the majors, and now he holds two major league records.