The next two concepts about the Brewers ace Corbin Burnes are correct.
– He’s having one of the most dominant seasons for a pitcher in the last century, in numbers per catch.
– Not likely to win the National League Cy Young Award.
It is understood if both are difficult to digest. In part, it’s because he missed more than two weeks into the season after testing positive for COVID-19 and because the pitching-rich Brewers have used a six-pitch rotation. For those reasons, Burnes has thrown just 144 stages in the year.
They are 44.2 innings less than Zack Wheeler of Philadelphia, one of the leading candidates for the award. Burnes has 39 fewer episodes released than Walker Buehler, who could be considered the favorite. He is 10 behind Max Scherzer, who has placed himself in the conversation.
That matters, of course. How do you weigh the fact that “he’s pitching really good” with “but not as often as the others”? We do not envy those who have a vote for this year’s award. Let’s try to help them.
If we start by saying, “Burnes is one of the best pitchers per inning in the last century in baseball,” we need a point guard.
There are millions of numbers that can tell their own story. In my case, I lean towards the Independent Pitching of the Pitching (FIP), which takes into consideration what a mound can control (strikeouts, walks, home runs and balls) and puts them under a scale of effectiveness.
You may prefer effectiveness and that’s fine, but we are relying on the FIP because it tries to take the effect of good or bad defense out of the equation. There is evidence to indicate that the Milwaukee defense has not looked good with Burnes on the mound.
Let’s go back to 1920 and look at the 8,735 seasons a pitcher has completed 140 innings or more since then and put those who have had the best FIP first.
Minor FIP, 1920-2021, minimum 140 innings
1.39 – Pedro Martínez, 1999
1.58 – Burnes, 2021
1.69 – Dwight Gooden, 1984
1.77 – Bob Gibson, 1968
1.80 – Clayton Kershaw, 2016
1.81 – Kershaw, 2014
1.85 – Sandy Koufax, 1963
It’s a very great roster, plus a pitcher who posted an 8.82 ERA a couple of seasons ago.
Yes, there is an important difference in the inputs. Martinez shot 213.1 episodes in 1999 and Gibson 304.2 in 1968. We’ll talk about it, but for now, we’re going to keep dominance. Why is Burnes’s FIP so good, on the level of some of the best in history? It looks like this part will be easy, given that he started out big – striking out 58 opponents before walking his first walk. He then made another mark last month, when he struck out 10 opponents in a row.
As we mentioned, it’s mostly about strikeouts, walks, and home runs, therefore:
Strikeouts: His 34.4% strikeout rate is the third best of the year, among those with at least 140 innings pitched.
Tickets: _ * _ Has the second best ticket rate of the season (4.9%).
Home runs: _ * _ His 0.31 HR / 9 rate – something like five home runs against 259 batters – is not only the best of 2021 (by far), but the third lowest of the 21st century.
If you look at who are likely to be the top six NL Cy Young contenders – we include Brunes, Wheeler, Scherzer, Buehler, Kevin Gausman and Brandon Woodruff – you can see that only Scherzer beats Burnes in strikeout rate, but Burnes he walks better and Scherzer has allowed four times as many home runs as Burnes in just 10 more innings.
In fact, we can go deeper, with that number of home runs. The FIP only takes home runs into account, ignoring the other balls hit (because fielders come into the equation, obviously). Statcast counts the quality of contact and, guess what? Burnes has the fifth best hit rate and the fewest barrels against.
In Statcast’s seven-year history, Burnes’ 2021 is the best season on record, when contact quality and strikeout / walk rate are combined.
Also, let’s go old school for a second. Burnes’ 2.38 ERA is third-best in the majors, if you don’t factor in the fact that it’s harder to pitch at American Family Park than it is at Dodger Stadium. If you take that into account, he has the best earned run percentage, tied with Scherzer.
But what about the difference in tickets? It is the usual duel of quality against quantity.
HOW MUCH DOES THE INNINGS DIFFERENCE MATTER?
Aside from Saturday’s opening, Burnes will likely have three more starts before the end of the season. Assuming he will pitch six innings each – though the Brewers may give him a break with the division secured – he will finish with a total of 168 stretches. He won’t be near Wheeler. Let’s think that the difference of 40-45 episodes will continue.
Its alot. Shortened seasons and relievers aside, no starter has won the Cy Young with fewer innings than Blake Snell’s 180.2 in 2018, overcoming a 35 deficit against leaders Corey Kluber and Justin Verlander. Snell’s case leaned on the old school, with the southpaw having 21 wins and a 1.89 ERA, somewhat different from Burnes.
Again, the game has changed considerably. With so few starters covering so many innings (like Wheeler), you might want to give them more credit for it. On the other hand, since there aren’t that many pitchers of those characteristics anymore, should Burnes be penalized for that?
The difference between the two does not seem to be that much when you look at the NL leaders in innings per opening (minimum 140 total innings).
6.7 – Wheeler
6.5 – Adam Wainwright
6.4 – Buehler
6.1 – Sandy Alcantara
6.0 – Burnes (tied with Woodruff, Wade Miley)
When it comes to starting pitches, Wheeler is the leader with 101, while Burnes is in 10th place with 93. Is eight pitches enough to decide a Cy Young Award?
Looking at it another way, Wheeler has pitched 15.6% of all Philadelphia innings, Buehler 14.3% of Los Angeles and Burnes 11.6% of Milwaukee. It’s a significant difference, perhaps enough to take away the award from the most dominant pitcher of the year.
There are really no wrong answers here and we’ve already seen a similar case, with Kershaw in 2016, when he was the most dominant mounter of the season, but threw only 149 innings. He finished fifth in the vote.
But that year the difference was greater. The winner, Scherzer, completed 79.1 more episodes than Kershaw. That won’t happen in 2021, nor will Burnes fall short of qualifying for the ERA lead, as Kershaw did in 2016.
It is not an easy answer. Maybe you prefer the quantity, but the quality is not in dispute.