“I am not necessarily a results-oriented guy.” – Corbin Burnes, February ’17
The 2017 Carolina Mudcats roster is loaded with talent and potential. And despite his self-confessed ambivalence to results, starting pitcher Corbin Burnes has been one of the most impressive producers of the first two months for the Mudcats. Burnes, as you might expect from a prospect still at the High-A level, still has a ways to go until he’s a Major League caliber player. But Burnes’ dominance over the Midwest League through May makes him one of the most exciting names in an exciting farm system. The Brewers just promoted this exciting righty to Class-AA Biloxi.
Coming into this season, there were concerns about Burnes’s future role. He appeared in twelve games across two levels in 2016, starting six of them, and posted significantly better splits as a relief pitcher. Back in February, he attributed that discrepancy to pure luck. Burnes was, and still is, confident in his future as a starting pitcher. Nine starts into the 2017 campaign, the numbers back this self-confidence up.
Burnes did not come out of the Carolina bullpen, but he will tandem with Tayler Williams in Biloxi. All nine of his Carolina appearances were starts. In those nine starts he’s 5-0, and he’s put up an ERA of 1.00 and a WHIP of 0.93. After struggling with wildness for the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers last season, Burnes is striking out 3.33 hitters for every walk this time around. DRA of 1.82 suggests that, while he’s gotten a little lucky, he’s still pitching at an ace level.
As Jack Conness noted at BP Milwaukee in February, Burnes has an intense nature and a work ethic to match. He’s also got a four-pitch arsenal, and some scouts feel that all four pitches could develop into Major League caliber offerings. There are concerns yet about his consistency and mechanics, but it’s not hard to see him developing into a valuable piece of a playoff pitching staff.
During the month of May, Burnes has turned on the afterburners. (You’re welcome, future Brewers play-by-play guys.) He’s picked up four of his five wins, posted an ERA of 0.55 for the month, and catapulted his name into any and all discussions of the Brewers’ future plans.
Burnes started off his month on the 4th against the Frederick Keys, affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. In his final start of April the Keys had touched him up for three earned runs in 5.3 innings, easily his worst start of the year. But this time around, Burnes shut Frederick out over 6 2/3, surrendering just one hit and striking out five. That was Burnes’ wildest start of the month: he walked three, but the only time Frederick even threatened was the top of the second. A leadoff single and one-out walk, plus a ground ball, left two runners in scoring position. But Burnes got Josh Hart swinging to end the threat, and Frederick wouldn’t score again until the ninth when Carolina already had a seven-run lead.
Six days later, he toed the rubber in Lynchburg to take on the Hillcats, a Cleveland farm team. Burnes lasted six innings even this time around, and again held his assignment scoreless for the night. He struck out just three but only walked one, and the Mudcats won the seven-inning game, 2-0, as part of a doubleheader sweep.
On the 16th, Burnes took on the Down East Wood Ducks, part of the Texas Rangers organization, and his scoreless streak was snapped in the first inning as LeDarious Clark tripled and came in to score. But the Mudcats opened up a 9-1 lead in the bottom of the first, effectively ending the game (which finished 11-2). Staked to the comfortable lead, Burnes ate up seven innings, scattering seven hits and giving up just the one run. He walked just a single batter once again, and struck out five. It wasn’t his most dominant start, but it further established something we already know about Burnes: he’s capable of digging deep and working out of jams on the nights he doesn’t have his best stuff.
And speaking of Corbin Burnes’s best stuff, the Chicago White Sox-affiliated Winston-Salem Dash ran into a buzz saw on May 21st. Burnes once again tossed seven innings, and this time he was masterful: three hits, one walk, and ten punchouts. Unfortunately, his counterpart Tanner Banks was just as good, going for eight innings, four hits, no walks, five strikeouts. The game went to extra innings, denying Burnes a five-start, five-win mark for the month. Fortunately, however, the Mudcats broke the scoreless drought in the top of the tenth with a three-spot to win.
Last Friday, Burnes improved to 5-0 on the season at home against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. This was possibly the biggest game of Burnes’s May, as the Pelicans are the High-A affiliate of the Cubs. Burnes went six strong innings, making it the fifth time in May he lasted at least that long. After giving up two hits to start the game (and lead to a first-inning run), he settled down, keeping Myrtle Beach hitless the rest of his watch by walking just one and striking out six.
Burnes has drawn plenty of attention from industry scouts in the early going of the season. He missed BP’s Top 10 list for the Brewers but over at Fangraphs, where the list went up to 25, Burnes slid in as number 18. They commend his competitive attitude and athleticism, making note of his plus fielding on the mound. But his calling card is “a four-pitch mix led by a mid-80s changeup and slider, both of which have above-average potential.” Burnes’s curveball is clearly the fourth offering of the bunch, and will either need to be smoothed out mechanically (he has a tendency to change his arm angle, tipping the pitch) or retired entirely. Due to his high-effort delivery and inconsistent control, they noted the possibility that he ends up in the bullpen, but ultimately saw him coming through as a back-end starter.
BP’s Craig Goldstein wrote about Burnes in the May 9 edition of Notes from the Field and, as this was early on into Burnes’ burning May, he was probably the most critical evaluator of the bunch. He praised Burnes’s “lanky frame,” noting that he appears “capable of adding good weight,” but was unimpressed with his “inconsistent mechanics,” noting that he “flew open frequently” and “located well when he wasn’t flying open.” In Goldstein’s evaluation, Burnes’s fastball and slider are unmistakably his two best pitches, with the curveball as a “tertiary offering; show-me pitch.” His changeup either never made it out of the bag, or was used so infrequently that Goldstein didn’t see it as being worth noting. Ultimately, Goldstein “could easily envision [Burnes] as a reliever with a FB/SL repertoire.”
Last week, in the big weekend Minor League Update, BP’s Mark Anderson gave Burnes a write-up as well. He agreed that Burnes’s fastball is the carrying tool in the repertoire, but also noted that he has “three secondary pitches that are all slowly improving.” Like the other scouts, Anderson agreed that Burnes “needs work and may need extended time at each of the upper-level minor league stops before he’s ready,” and agreed with Fangraphs in that “there’s a chance the Brewers have a number four starter in the making.”
On the same day, Eric Longerhagen of FanGraphs included a quick blurb on Burnes in his Daily Prospect Notes: “The fiery Burnes is starting to look like a bit of a steal in last year’s fourth round and has a 1.00 ERA over nine starts at High-A. His frame is filling out and he’s sitting 92-94 with a chance for three average secondaries (maybe a 55 curveball) and average command. He’s athletic, fields his position well, and profiles toward the back of a rotation.”
Longerhagen also provided video of Burnes, which is incredibly helpful for our purposes. He’s certainly commanding the strike zone better than he did in his pro debut last season. This could be a sign that his mechanics are starting to come together, or it could be a sign that he’s on a hot streak. Let’s investigate:
We can clearly see where Burnes’s inconsistency roots from. His pitching motion has a dual trigger. His hands move down from his chest to his waist, and he rocks his weight onto his front foot off to the side of the mound. The inconsistency starts here. Sometimes, these two motions happen simultaneously. Sometimes, Burnes drops his hands up to a half second before his lower body kicks into gear. These two moving parts need to me working synchronously, ideally with no variance whatsoever. That is not the case, which means that sometimes Burnes’s lower body needs to play catch-up to the top part of his delivery. This leads to the “flying open” that Craig Goldstein took note of.
The good news is that, with proper coaching and tireless repetition, Burnes’s timing issues should become a thing of the past. This should lead directly to more consistent command of all of his pitches. As the month of May proves, when Burnes can keep from allowing free passes he can dominate the game and keep opposing offenses at bay.
The Conness profile of Burnes this February provided that opening quote to explain that Burnes tries to mentally focus on process and preparation, since those will lead to consistently positive results, rather than focusing on positive results, which can sometimes just be a lucky hot streak. With any other 22-year-old pitcher, it would be easy to look at the gaudy numbers, and the still-flawed mechanics, and worry that this run of success is the worst thing that could happen to his long-term prospects. But in this case, the magical May just means that more eyes are paying attention as Burnes grinds out the incremental improvements that transform a High-A arm into a big league starter.