Twenty-three times this season, Corbin Burnes has stood on the mound with a chance to throw ball four. Every time, he has thrown a strike. Burnes, a Milwaukee Brewers right-hander, swears he doesn’t even think about it. He has a nearly historic aversion to bases on balls.
“If you get to 3-0 and you’re going, ‘Oh, I don’t want to walk this guy,’ you’re already hosed,” Burnes said recently. “At that point you’ve already walked the guy.”
Burnes usually recovers for a strikeout. He has 49 so far, with zero walks, two shy of the record streak for the start of a season, set by Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen in 2017. After missing two starts with what had been an unspecified injury — he confirmed on Wednesday that he had an asymptomatic case of the coronavirus — Burnes will face the Cardinals in Milwaukee on Thursday, when the record for strikeouts without a walk at any point in a season also could fall. In 2002 for Arizona, Curt Schilling fanned 56 hitters without a walk, a figure easily within reach for Burnes.
“I think he might be better than anything I could do on a video game right now,” said Brewers reliever Devin Williams, the National League’s rookie of the year last season. He added: “It’s kind of crazy to watch, because he has so many pitches and they’re all elite. He’s got the curveball, slider, cutter, a changeup he’s throwing at 92. It’s kind of ridiculous, honestly. I don’t know how anyone gets a hit off that guy.”
Not many do. Opponents hit only .152 in April off Burnes, whose earned run average is 1.53. He has recorded at least nine strikeouts in all five of his starts, standing out even in a season of extreme power pitching in the majors. Since the start of the 2020 season, Burnes, 26, has fanned 39.4 percent of opposing hitters, second only the Mets’ Jacob deGrom (41.3 percent) among pitchers with at least 80 innings. His 1.92 E.R.A. is also second best to deGrom, at 1.75.
Burnes has only allowed five earned runs this season. He has held opposing batters to an O.P.S. of .414.Credit…Stacy Revere/Getty Images
“The velocity that he’s throwing with throughout the game is pretty incredible — the eye-popping stuff, the strike-throwing and the swings he’s getting consistently, that’s what’s been amazing,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell said. “We’re still so early in the season and we’ve got a long, long way to go. But this didn’t come out of nowhere.”
Yet it did follow an especially trying 2019. That season, Burnes’s second in the majors, he had an 8.82 E.R.A., the highest ever by a Brewers pitcher with at least 40 innings. It was not the first time he had struggled: In 2014, as a freshman at Saint Mary’s College in California, Burnes had gone 0-4 with a 6.18 E.R.A.
His college coach, Eric Valenzuela, found Burnes a spot in a summer league in the Hamptons, a step below the esteemed Cape Cod League but a setting in which he could shine.
“Because of his velocity, I thought he could possibly dominate that league and come back with some confidence, because I think he lost some — anybody would if you get hit on the chin as a freshman in Division I” said Valenzuela, now the head coach at Long Beach State. “He went out there and ended up being the pitcher of the year and the No. 1 prospect in that league.”
Two strong seasons followed, with Burnes and Tony Gonsolin, now of the Dodgers, leading Saint Mary’s to its first N.C.A.A. regional in 2016. The Brewers drafted Burnes in the fourth round that June, and two years later he was working high-leverage innings in the National League Championship Series.
The regression that followed, after Burnes had seemingly established himself, has plenty of historical precedent. A recent example, he said, was the Chicago White Sox’ Lucas Giolito, who allowed the most earned runs in the majors at a similar point in his career, then made the All-Star team the next season.
“He changed his arm action, shortened up, and now he’s got a phenomenal changeup and a good fastball and he’s taken off,” Burnes said of Giolito. “I think everyone has to find out what their own personal thing is, and once you’re able to master it, things can take off.”
For Burnes, that meant sharpening his mental approach with a sports psychologist and doubling down on his best pitch. As bad as his statistics were in 2019, 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 as we got into spring training, the harder slider with less depth kind of turned into the cutter,” he said. “It was actually thrown very similar to how I threw my four-seam fastball in the past, just a slight adjustment with the baseball, and as I’ve gotten more comfortable with it over the last year and a half, I’ve been able to find ways to get the velocity to continue to tick up while still keeping the same movement profile.”
The result is a cutter that veers so explosively — inside to left-handed hitters, away from righties — that, on the Brewers’ telecast Monday, it drew comparisons to Mariano Rivera’s. Since 2020, Burnes’ cutter has averaged 94.3 miles an hour, the fastest of its kind in the majors, according to Fangraphs. This season he has used it more than 50 percent of the time.
“Of course I’m biased, but I think it’s the best pitch in baseball right now, I really do,” Valenzuela said. “I don’t see a better pitch in the big leagues. He can throw backdoor to lefties, he can throw away to righties and they just can’t hit it. They can’t make good contact with it.”
Batters have hit .163 off Burnes’s cutter since 2020, with one home run in 129 at-bats. His cutter and sinker — which moves in the opposite direction — force the hitter to account for pitches in and away from both the handle and the end of the bat. Add that combination to Burnes’s other pitches and impeccable command, and you have an updated version of Roy Halladay, the Hall of Fame right-hander for Toronto and Philadelphia.
Like Burnes, Halladay’s performance fell off drastically after an initial burst of success. He adjusted his mechanics and mental preparation and cut his E.R.A. by more than seven runs from one season to the next, trusting his stuff so fully that never tried to get hitters to chase pitches outside the zone.
“I felt like with two strikes — 0-2, 1-2 — if they didn’t swing at it, it was going to 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 at and put in play, or it was going to be a strike.”
The comparison is not a perfect fit; Halladay separated himself with extraordinary durability, and Burnes has gotten only four outs past the sixth inning in 18 career starts. But there are echoes of Halladay when Burnes outlines his approach.
“The biggest thing that I’ve done this off-season is the mind-set,” 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 pitcher’s counts, I’m going at hitters. There’s no, ‘Oh, I’m behind here 2-0, 3-0, this guy’s a good fastball hitter’ — no. As soon as you fall into that trap, you’re done.”
Burnes has found his way out of traps, in college and the majors, and soon he may hold a record.