TDG Roundtable: Ranking Corbin Burnes from a Dynasty Perspective
Every week on Fridays, our writers here at The Dynasty Guru will be bringing you some quick hit musings about a particular topic so you, the reader, can get a blast of info from a bunch of different writers with some passionate opinions. This week, our staff discusses Corbin Burnes and how he ranks from a dynasty league standpoint.
I heard all of the hype Corbin Burnes was getting this winter. I saw what he did in 2020, prior to his oblique injury but I needed to see more. The new and improved Burnes with his cutter has been one of the brighter spots in baseball this year…and how he ‘broke’ Baseball-Reference. (To infinity and beyond!)
So what changed? He added a cutter and boy oh boy, he is really leaning on that pitch. He has been going to that offering over half of the time and striking out batters at a 35% of the time! What a crazy, awesome, amazing pitch! Taking a look at my dynasty ranks, I’ve moved Burnes up fourteen spots to tenth overall, which is a HUGE jump. So who do I have ranked above him? Bieber, Cole, Buehler, deGrom, Giolito, Woodruff, Nola, Gallen, and Bauer. These pitchers have the stuff and (more importantly) health track record that Burnes has yet to show. Believe me, I am loving what I am seeing from Burnes but I need to see more (both arsenal and health) before I move him any higher.
When it comes to my starting pitcher ranks, I lean heavily toward a higher floor than a high ceiling. While Burnes came out of the gate setting records in 2021, the issue with him (and let’s be honest, all pitchers) is health or lack thereof. While prior innings pitched is not indicative of future health, it must be factored in. The second factor in my rankings is their divisional opponents, as facing the Tigers, Indians and Royals is much nicer than facing the Padres, Dodgers, and Diamondbacks/Rockies (at their respective home parks), for example. Burnes has had injury issues, as has his teammate and fellow ace Brandon Woodruff which keeps them both toward the end of the top 10 starting pitchers. Based on his hot start Burnes slides in at number ten in my current dynasty SP rankings. Here they are: de Grom, Cole, Bieber, Nola, Bauer, Darvish, Kershaw, Giolito, Woodruff, Burnes. If you are lucky enough to roster one (or even two) of the pitchers ahead of Burnes, now would be the time to trade him for players that fill deficiencies on your team. If Burnes is your ace, feel confident but cautious as the Brewers will more than likely limit his innings the rest of 2021.
How impressive is this start to the season for Corbin Burnes? Namely, how incredible is his 49-0 K:BB ratio over 5 games? Well, according to some info I pulled from Stathead Baseball it’s never been done before. Nobody has ever had 49 or more strikeouts with no walks in a five-game span, going back to 1901. Curt Schilling had 47 K’s without a walk in five games in 2002, Pedro Martinez and Yu Darvish had 44 in 2000 & 2019 respectively, and Corey Kluber had 42 in 2018 with no free passes. Well, is having zero walks really that much more impressive than say having two or three, but more strikeouts? That’s up to the reader, we’ll all have our own opinions, but 23 pitchers have had more than 49 strikeouts in a 5 game span, with three or fewer walks. That, on its own merit, is quite incredible, given that we’re looking at 120 years of baseball. It’s the names on this list that are even more impressive. It was done multiple times by Clayton Kershaw & Curt Schilling in their primes. Justin Verlander, Pedro Martinez, Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, and Cliff Lee all find themselves on the list. Madison Bumgarner & Noah Syndergaard in their primes, R.A. Dickey & Corey Kluber the years they won a Cy Young. Players with exactly 49 strikeouts in 5 games, and 3 or fewer walks include Fergie Jenkins, Max Scherzer, and Jose Fernandez. Burnes has put himself amid some of the best pitchers of their generations, and most deserving Hall of Fame consideration, in some cases first-ballot enshrinement. Notice the list excludes some all-time greats such as Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, Roy Halladay, and Randy Johnson.
Now, how much do you allow a 5-game span to affect your SP rankings? Well, Burnes’ breakout really began with his 59.2 innings pitched in 2020, I had him ranked as my #15 dynasty SP during our rankingSZN, and would surely put him up ahead of Blake Snell, Luis Castillo, and Tyler Glasnow… now. I think the question is do you put him in with Shane Bieber? Why not? Both are showing incredible control, over basically the same number of innings the last two partial seasons. It should at least be something to consider. Do you put Burnes in the group with Gerrit Cole and Jacob DeGrom? That’s where I would draw the line personally. Despite being older than Burnes, DeGrom and Cole are amazingly showing improved stuff this season, and have a much longer track record of being dominant. I like knowing what the two ace incumbents will do when they don’t have their best stuff, while I’m still not sure what Burnes will do if the shoe were on the other foot.
Corbin Burnes is currently fourth in my dynasty SP rankings. He belongs in the top tier along with Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom. I know it’s only been five starts, only 29.1 innings. That’s why I have him last in that top tier. But what he’s done this season – a 45.4% strikeout rate, no walks, a 1.53 ERA that advanced metrics say is too high – is just a cut above what the next group is even capable of.
There are some really good starting pitchers in the second tier, but have any of them been that good for any five-start stretch at any point in their careers? Clayton Kershaw, maybe, but he’s 33. And sure, pitchers aren’t defined simply by how good they are at their best. Consistency matters too. But that’s not an argument that’s going to help Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell or Jack Flaherty.
Aaron Nola and Walker Buehler are striking out about 25% of the batters they face this season, around one per inning. Both are likely to improve their K-rates, but neither is going to get close to where Burnes is now.
Lucas Giolito is struggling. Luis Castillo is a mess. Zac Gallen still walks too many batters. Brandon Woodruff has been great, but not the best pitcher on the Brewers. I had Burnes 13th in preseason rankings, but I don’t think the gap between him and fourth was all that big. What he’s done this season is more than enough to close it.
I’ll be honest – I totally whiffed on my Corbin Burnes dynasty ranking heading into this season. About 5 months ago I had him around SP 20, and while I have him at SP9 now in my new top-500, it was definitely too little too late for me to get him on ANY of my teams for 2021. That’s right: 15 teams, and not one single Corbin Burnes.
The reason? Well, after much thought, I think I was still holding onto his 2019 stats. Which sounds crazy, right? I guess we all have our blind spots. But let this be a good lesson for anyone doing rankings for the first time. I am, obviously, still relatively new to the rankings game, but I realize I was very much letting previous seasons (2019 in particular, when I actually was jazzed about him last) inhibit sound analysis for the upcoming season. In hindsight, I should have done better research, should have picked up on the pitch mix changes and adjusted my rankings accordingly. It’s incredible what he’s accomplished since the start of 2020: 89 innings pitched across 14 starts with a 39.4% strikeout rate and 4.2 fWAR (second only to deGrom amongst pitchers). My goodness. He definitely has the look of a top-10 pitcher moving forward with an SP1 ceiling.
We all know about the turnaround of Corbin Burnes career as he started to marginalize his fastball a year ago in favor of his cutter and sinker. This mixing change has been evolving even more this year, let’s see his repertoire evolution the last three seasons:
Last year, Burnes favored his sinker by a thin margin compared to his cutter (+1.6%) and reduced to a mere 2.5% a mediocre 4-seamer that gave him nothing but problems because of its ineffectiveness. This season, as you can see, another pitch has been relegated to the shadows, but unlike the almost nonexistent 4-seamer his sinker is still an important part of his repertoire. This is not random stuff, Burnes and Brewers staff realized that Corbin’s best pitch wasn’t the sinker by any means and they converted this pitch into a secondary one. Burnes’ sinker was last among his pitches in almost every negative category (.313 xBA .581 xSLG .420 xWOBA) and was second to last in allowed Exit Velocity (91.6 mph) the latter being his four seamer, which sample size is minimal compared with his sinker.
Seeing Burnes evolve that way every year is encouraging, and for fantasy purposes he has nothing to probe as a bonafide ace; the only question mark about him is his durability in a long, very long season. However, I’m seeing Brewers limiting his innings at some point, hurting fantasy managers in a possible playoff run this year, but hey! I own him in a pair of dynasty leagues, and I don’t mind sacrificing the short term for the future. Long health, King Burnes!
The young pitching in the Milwaukee Brewers rotation has been a fascination of mine for years now. In fact, my first solo piece with The Dynasty Guru was about that Brewers rotation a month into the 2019 season, which included a plea to someday move Josh Hader to the rotation to become “The Next Chris Sale”. Buried in there were some details on my love for Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, and Corbin Burnes and admiration for the Brewers having the guts to put ALL three of these pitchers in the rotation to start 2019. It turns out that the Brewers had the right idea, albeit a bit early, and that keeping Hader at the back-end of the game was seemingly the right move. Regarding Burnes, at the time I said, “Corbin Burnes threw nine excellent innings in relief during the 2018 playoffs, but it remains to be seen if he can carry it over into the rotation. Despite a double-digit ERA in the early going, Burnes has a 3.29 xFIP and 13.2 K/9, so things should straighten out a bit.”
xFIP is a fielding independent pitching stat that normalizes Home Run rate, and as Burnes enters year four of his career his 2019 Home Run rate is an absolutely wild outlier. Here are those rates from 2018 to 2021, respectively: 0.95, 3.12, 0.30, 0.31. What is that in the second spot!? Of course, those home runs happened and we can’t make excuses for everything but as time passes I’m convinced that 2019 is the outlier. His season long xFIPs are 3.77, 3.37, 2.99, 1.18. Using the eye test to watch Burnes’ gorgeous cut fastball that he uses 54% of the time and averages 96 MPH to the tune of a .164 BA against, I am even more sold on the pitcher. Having never topped 60 innings in a major league season, I regrettably did not target Burnes in redraft leagues this year based on the early draft pick needed to select him. However, I did trade for him during spring training in a dynasty league where I am rebuilding and believe my window will start in 2022. Hopefully, his IL stint will be brief and Burnes can throw around 150 innings this year. Entering the season, I ranked Burnes #16 on my dynasty SP rankings right behind, oddly enough, Chris Sale. I have already moved him up to the back of my top-ten, and if he can stay healthy and reach the 150 inning mark (and hopefully beyond when including playoff innings, after the Brewers win the division), I am hopeful that he will move even higher entering his 27-year-old season in 2022.