Two years after being one of the worst pitchers in baseball, Corbin Burnes is a Cy Young Award winner.
The Milwaukee Brewers right-hander took home the 2021 NL award on Wednesday, adding a trophy to a season that vaulted him into ace status among MLB pitchers. His is the third player in Brewers history to win the award, and the first since Pete Vuckovich in 1982, when the team was in the AL.
Burnes narrowly beat Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler for the award, with both earning 12 first-place votes. Burnes won by receiving five more second-place votes, giving him a margin of 151 to 141.
Los Angeles Dodgers ace Max Scherzer came in third, nabbing the remaining six first-place votes.
Corbin Burnes was borderline unhittable in 2021
In 28 starts, Burnes threw 167 innings with an MLB-best 2.43 ERA, an MLB-best 1.63 FIP and an MLB-best 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings. Simply put, no pitcher this side of the injured Jacob deGrom was more dominant when he was on the mound this year.
Burnes' excellence was particularly clear at the start of the season, when he didn't walk a batter until May 13. His 58 strikeouts before issuing his first base on balls broke Kenley Jansen's MLB record of 52.
He would go on to strike out 10 consecutive batters in August, something only two other pitchers, Tom Seaver and Aaron Nola, have accomplished in MLB history. In September, he threw eight innings in what would become a combined no-hitter, the second in Brewers franchise history.
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) August 12, 2021
Alongside Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, Burnes formed a trio of starters that led the Brewers to a 95-win season and an NL Central title, but later fell to the champion Atlanta Braves in the NLDS.
Just about the only knock against Burnes' Cy Young case was his number of innings. His 167 innings rank as the fewest ever thrown by a Cy Young-winning starting pitcher in MLB history, outside of last year's pandemic-shortened season. While Burnes was never seriously injured during the season, a bout with COVID-19 and the Brewers' decision to use a six-man rotation suppressed his total number of outings.
That might have mattered more in the days when 200 innings pitched was basically a prerequisite to win a Cy Young, whereas four pitchers in all of MLB cleared that mark in 2021. One of Burnes' biggest competitors for the award, Scherzer, also wasn't that much ahead of him with 179 1/3 innings.
Corbin Burnes was very hittable in 2019
All of the above accolades and records are a stunning thing to see considering where Burnes was two years ago.
In 2019, had you compiled a list of 50, maybe even 100, pitchers that you believed to be capable of winning a 2021 Cy Young Award, Burnes would have been nowhere close. Simply put, Burnes was terrible in 2019. Historically terrible.
In 49 innings pitched, Burnes posted a galling 8.82 ERA. He started in the rotation, got shelled, moved to the bullpen, continued to get shelled and was eventually placed on the injured list with a shoulder problem, never a great sign for a pitcher's future. No pitcher in franchise history had posted a worse ERA in at least 40 innings pitched, nor had any pitcher in MLB that year. Only 23 pitchers in MLB history had a worse mark.
What changed for Burnes? It all started with a cutter.
In 2019, Burnes' primary pitch had been a four-seam fastball, and it was not a good four-seam fastball. Opponents hit .425 against it and slugged .823. By Baseball Savant's run value metric, it was legitimately the worst pitch in baseball. So Burnes replaced it with one of the best pitches in baseball.
Corbin Burnes struck out 117 batters with his cutter in the 2021 regular season, so here are all 117 of his cutter strikeouts, as a treat. pic.twitter.com/VZRqSbrQzO
— Cut4 (@Cut4) November 18, 2021
Armed with a cutter currently averaging 95.2 mph and breaking well more than average, plus some pinpoint command, Burnes mowed through MLB hitters in 2020 and 2021. The pitch ranked fifth in run value among all MLB offerings and opponents only hit .237 against the pitch in 2021, which allowed Burnes' other pitches to play up as well.
Burnes clearly showed something was different in 2020, when he posted a 2.11 ERA in 59 2/3 innings, but he still had to prove himself going into 2021 because he had never thrown more than 60 innings in a season. He did that and more.