Written by: Ray Butler
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
This article is the third installment of Ray’s ‘2020 Vision’ analytical deep dives. You can read his feature on Mitch Keller’s horrific 2019 luck and future outlook here. You can read his feature on the underrated ascension of Adrian Houser here.
If you’ve completed any fantasy drafts this preseason, you’re probably well-aware of the starting pitcher ‘honey hole’ between pick 110 and 130.
Within that 20-pick window, you’ll likely have the opportunity to select one of Frankie Montas, Jesús Lúzardo, Dinelson Lamet, Zac Gallen and Max Fried amongst others.
For the upcoming season, these five pitchers are evaluated as young arms with droolworthy upside who have an outside chance of providing ace value at a non-ace price tag. In dynasty league circles, this group of pitchers is commonly-heralded as the ‘next wave’ of fantasy aces. It’s assumed that at least a couple of the names mentioned above will take the next step in their development this season, which means they’ll be drafted amongst the best players in the league a year from now.
But what if I told you there’s a pitcher you can currently select around pick 450 in redrafts who has more potential as any of the above names? What if I told you the same pitcher could be selected with the same pick (450) in dynasty start-ups? More than 300 picks after the pitchers listed above? Strap yourself in for this one.
Corbin Burnes has more potential than Frankie Montas. Corbin Burnes has more potential than Jesús Lúzardo. Corbin Burnes has more potential than Dinelson Lamet. Corbin Burnes has more potential than Zac Gallen. Corbin Burnes has more potential than Max Fried.
If that paragraph gave you this reaction……
It’s probably because you’re aware of Burnes’ horrific numbers from last season. And it’s true! Burnes was largely atrocious in 2019. Instead of shrugging it off as a meaningless bump in the road or placing blame at the feet of poor luck, there was actually a legitimate—and fixable—issue that served as the predominant antagonist in the right-hander’s woes last season. More on that later.
As most of you probably know, any hype surrounding Burnes’ outlook is founded on the viability of his slider. It is not hyperbole to claim the pitch is one of the very best pitches in all of baseball. As a matter of fact, amongst all pitches thrown at least 250 times in 2019, the 35.2 SwStr% (!!!!) of Burnes’ slider ranks first. That’s right: no big league pitch was swung at and missed at a higher rate last season than the right-hander’s slider. The pitch ranked ahead of several pitches that have been hailed as ‘career makers’ for many prominent pitchers throughout the league (via Alex Chamberlain’s pitching tableau).
But since I’m making the claim Burnes still possesses top-of-the-rotation potential, let’s compare his best pitch to the sliders of two starting pitchers currently inside the top-50 of NFBC ADP who also rely heavily on the pitch.
If you’d prefer to chalk-up a bit of the success of Burnes’ slider to the fact 28 of his 32 appearances last season were made in relief (in other words, you think the slider was good partially because of his short outings), notice two things: 1) the usage of the pitch (31.0%) doesn’t at all allude to a reliever leaning more heavily on a single pitch than is in the comfort zone of a starter. 2) the pitch can afford to negatively regress a little bit and still serve as a huge, foundational building block for Burnes that most pitchers can only dream of.
Today’s #TheFastPitch is:
Corbin Burnes’s –@Burnes16– Slider:
35.2 SwSt (1st min 250 thrown)
45.1% CSW rate (4th)
52.1% K rate (5th)
.161 xBA (top 20%) pic.twitter.com/D1udnnc0Zi
— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) November 19, 2019
Let’s circle the wagons back to the 25-year-old’s statistical shortcomings last season. Shield your eyes for this grossness of a season-long stat line: 49.0 IP, 70 H, 48 ER, 20 BB, 70 K, .414 BABIP. Those numbers were good for a 8.82 ERA and 6.09 FIP. It’s difficult to overstate how horrendous those numbers are. The 3.37 xFIP (and 2.72 FIP – xFIP, thanks to Burnes’ league-worst 38.6 HR/FB% and 3rd-worst HR/9 of 3.12 (min. 40 IP)) gives us some reason for optimism, but it’s really hard to spin the opposing batted ball metrics into a positive light…. (h/t Baseball Savant)
You can make the argument that portions of Burnes’ batted ball profile were a bit unlucky, but your hope in making that argument is simply to settle at ‘stunk’ to describe the right-hander’s 2019 performance instead of ‘sucked’. The 25-year-old devolved from a sneaky redraft pitcher last preseason to a complete afterthought before schools let out for summer. It was a quick and painful descent for an uber-talented, former top-50 prospect.
So what served as the catalyst for the rapid fall from grace? After all, you were probably drawn to the title of this article because you’re aware of statistical mishaps from the right-hander last season. Often in these pieces, we lean on the hope of an uptick in command to make a pitcher click. Other times, it’s a ‘stuff issue’. Luckily, neither of these are true with evaluating Burnes.
Simply put, Corbin Burnes’ four seam fastball stunk last season. It was terrible. It’s also the reason I’m so optimistic about the 25-year-old’s outlook moving forward.
A popular topic of conversation amongst analysts this season has been spin efficiency, spin axis and movement profile. As a matter of fact, our Trevor Powers published a deep dive on the trio of data points on New Year’s Day. Straight to the point: spin rate is an extremely important data point when evaluating pitchers, but it’s not the only data point.
Burnes’ four seam fastball is the epitome of analytically elite, ranking 4th amongst all pitchers in the big leagues with 2654 RPM spin rate. Justin Verlander’s high-spin fastball often serves as one of the most-easily recognizable ‘faces’ of data-friendly heaters. From a spin rate standpoint, Burnes’ is noticeably better (h/t Alex Chamberlain’s pitching tableau).
Unfortunately, the 25-year-old hasn’t harnessed the high-spin offering yet. Spin efficiency is the crux of Burnes’ problems. The spin rate of the right-hander’s four seam fastball suggests—in a perfect world—the pitch should either have elite vertical or horizontal movement. In other words, 1) the pitch should give the illusion of ‘rising’ to hitters from the time it leaves Burnes’ right hand until it cross the plate (vertical movement often correlates with a fastball that misses a favorable amount of bats), or 2) the pitch should ride-in on the hands of right-handed hitters, causing an advantageous amount of soft contact and busted bats.
Unfortunately, the pitch’s movement profile is lousy. Though it spins at an elite rate, it was ‘flat’ last season, leading to punishment from opposing hitters (h/t Baseball Savant).
When I have more time on my hands, I would love to research wOBAcon disparities between ‘flat’, high-spin fastballs versus ‘flat’, low-or-moderate spin fastballs. In my mind, it makes a bit of since that the former combination would have somewhat of an ‘Aluminum Power in Backyard Baseball’ effect for opposing hitters. That’s a study for another day, though.
Because the pitch was ‘flat’ and didn’t fool offensive foes, it was absolutely obliterated. Here’s how Burnes’ fastball compared to Verlander’s last season. Keep in mind that the less vertical movement a fastball has, the better.
|Velocity||Spin||Vert. Mov.||Hor. Mov.||xBA||xSLG||xwOBA||SwStr%|
|Verlander FF||94.6 mph||2577 RPM||10.7 in.||10.1 in.||.231||.521||.334||14.4%|
|Burnes FF||95.2 mph||2656 RPM||16.6 in.||2.0 in.||.345||.661||.449||7.8%|
As you can see, Burnes had a higher average fastball velocity and a higher fastball spin rate. But because of spin efficiency (which plays the leading role in movement profile), Verlander’s fastball was much better in 2019.
So how can a fastball with such an elite high spin rate have such a poor movement profile? As you might guess if you’ve read this article from our Trevor Powers, the right-hander’s fastball has poor spin efficiency. This flaw—while perhaps not single-handed—is certainly the main antagonist that has hindered the 25-year-old from reaching his gaudy potential early in his big league career.
The main reason for my Burnes optimism—and the main reason this article was worth writing—is that unoptimized spin efficiency is very fixable.
I reached out to an organizational pitch analyst this offseason to confirm this notion. My question? “How difficult is it to increase spin efficiency? Can it be improved if its a focal point of an offseason?” The answer? “100%. Anyone with a Rapsodo and any semblance of pitching knowledge could fix it.”
What must occur for the spin efficiency of a fastball to improve? A focus on hand position and finger placement as the ball leaves your hand. I loved this tweet (and the subsequent replies) from industry pal Lance Brozdowksi this offseason.
Here’s the fastball release difference between Dylan Cease and Anthony DeSclafani (GIF within story).
Cease’s fastball is straight, and at times, cuts.
What do you see? pic.twitter.com/GEwkdnFlBC
— Lance Brozdowski (@LanceBroz) January 6, 2020
In short, a few fine-point mechanics negatively impact the baseball’s ability to remain on its journey from the pitcher’s hand to home plate. It’s very likely Burnes’ hand and fingers resembled Dylan Cease’s (shown in the video above) last season, and the rest is unfortunate history. Luckily, high-speed cameras, adequate instruction and additional technological assistance can quickly help a pitcher adjust their hand position and finger placement at release. Pitchers like Cease and Joe Musgrove have been the focal point of these types of studies and breakdowns this season. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both have alluded to working to improve this issue early in Spring Training.
Dylan Cease said he felt better today than he did at any point last year, and was happy with his fastball command and the absence of cut. I asked if it was a good sign to already be at top velo (96-98), he countered: “We don’t know that was top velo”
— James Fegan (@JRFegan) February 23, 2020
Joe Musgrove post-start interview:
“Commanding the top of the zone was my main priority…first game action was trying to get that four-seamer at the top of the zone.”
Oh, and an emphasis of higher curveball usage as he improved its spin rate.
GET HYPED. pic.twitter.com/sKdnjvwJOk
— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) February 25, 2020
Now, I’m not saying that Burnes is ‘improved fastball spin efficiency’ away from becoming Justin Verlander. The table above was simply a way to illustrate the importance of movement profile as it relates to individual pitches. Remember that the 25-year-old is armed one of the very best sliders in all of baseball; even if the fastball simply becomes average from a movement profile standpoint (it’s currently well below average), we’re likely to see huge improvements in the right-hander’s outcomes, both from a surface stat and ‘under the hood’ standpoint. However, it is worth stating for the mega-optimists: if Burnes’ fastball ever reaches its potential, it will be one of the very best fastballs in the big leagues. If this happens, Burnes will become one of the best starting pitchers in all of baseball. The pitch has the velocity to be an elite offering. The pitch has the raw spin rate to be an elite offering. As utterly unoptimized as the pitch was last season, its 7.8 SwStr% still ranked above the four-seam swinging strike rate of pitchers like Dinelson Lamet, Clayton Kershaw, Patrick Corbin, Luke Weaver, Kenta Maeda and many more (min. 400 fastballs thrown). It’s hard to quantify how good the pitch could be with optimized spin efficiency and an improved movement profile.
The Brewers have a track record of being analytically inclined in the development of their pitchers; only time will tell (hopefully we’ll know this spring) whether spin efficiency was a focal point of Burnes’ offseason. It’s not an exaggeration to assume this hypothetical improvement will perhaps be the biggest factor in determining the 25-year-old’s future relevance and role in the big leagues. I’m hopeful the right-hander was alluding to fastball spin efficiency when he recently spoke about his carry-over from last season to this season (video in the imbedded tweet below; it’s really worth your time).
You’d think Corbin Burnes would want to wipe the slate clean after his nightmare 2019. But you’d be wrong. Here’s Burnes on a plan to build around a slider that ranks among baseball’s best, according to the data. pic.twitter.com/05DHdYrMVF
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) February 13, 2020
I know the main focus of this article has been the improvement of Burnes’ fastball, but when I hear him say his pitches began ‘blending’ together last season, I can’t help but wonder if correcting this issue will positively impact the curveball as well the fastball. The right-hander’s curve had a 92nd-percentile spin rate last season (2853 RPM) and induced a 42.9% Whiff, but opposing hitters mashed pitch when they made contact (.583 xBA, .641 xSLG, .526 xwOBA). The offering has above average horizontal movement but below average vertical movement; I’m curious if tinkering with the pitch (increasing vertical movement, decreasing horizontal movement) would help differentiate it with the slider. The analytics are certainly present for the offering to be an above average weapon versus left-handed hitters (the changeup—which moves a bit like a slow sinker—is already good and will hopefully be utilized more in the future), which Burnes certainly needs. If the right-hander successfully fixes the efficiency of his fastball spin and still never clicks, it’ll almost certainly be because he never found enough success vLHB.
A few more things worth mentioning: while we can’t yet confirm whether spin efficiency was a focus of the right-hander’s offseason, we do know he has been working with a sports psychologist to improve his mental approach moving forward. Burnes realized he needed more structure and a concrete routine moving forward, and I can only assume this will assist his preparation beginning this season. On a more minor note, the right-hander underwent Lasik eye surgery this offseason, so he’ll no longer wear goggles on the mound.
— Tom (@Haudricourt) February 15, 2020
In my analytical deep dive on Adrian Houser this offseason, the main takeaway was something along the lines of ‘hey, Adrian Houser is super underrated and could be Lance Lynn moving forward’. My analysis of Mitch Keller basically led to the conclusion he might have been the unluckiest pitcher in baseball last season, and (much) better days are ahead.
The stakes are higher with Corbin Burnes. The elite slider serves as an astronomical foundation, and I expect its usage to creep closer to 40% in 2020 and beyond (fun fact: he struck out Matt Olson with a 94 mph slider (!) in his first Spring Training appearance recently). Once more, I want to illustrate how much better Burnes’ slider is than the outcomes of his holistic arsenal from last season. This is insanity.
|Burnes 2019 Slider||.163||.268||.200||35.2%||58.0%|
|Burnes 2019 Total||.272||.503||.352||17.2%||37.0%|
Unlike so many other pitchers who are armed with one, viable weapon but are heavily penalized by the rest of their arsenal, Burnes’ main issue is extremely fixable. As a matter of fact, I expect ‘improved spin efficiency’ to become a popular talking point around the league (even on mainstream platforms like MLB Network) over the course of the next few seasons. While it’s obvious the rest of Burnes’ arsenal needs to catch up with his otherworldly slider, there’s a tangible, increasingly-popular plan to actually make this happen.
As was stated above, the right-hander certainly needs to throw his curveball and changeup more, especially versus left-handed hitters. As I’ve mentioned, increased differentiation between those two pitchers and the remainder of his arsenal should give him the confidence to utilize the curveball and changeup more moving forward. These things coming to fruition would naturally and obviously take a bit of pressure off the fastball, but Burnes’ improving his third and fourth-best pitches would be a mere side note of his growth and ascension if the he’s simply able to improve the spin efficiency of his heater.
A lot of hype pieces this offseason have ended with a summation of “how __________________ can ascend to a mid-rotation fantasy pitcher” or “how ____________________ can provide sneaky value for your offense this season.” This article has a much more bold and serious conclusion.
Corbin Burnes is much closer than you think to being an impact starting pitcher at the big league level. Corbin Burnes is much closer than you think to being more valuable in the fantasy world than teammate Brandon Woodruff, who is currently being selected as a top-80 overall player this preseason.
Despite a month of Spring Training games remaining before Opening Day and the fact Milwaukee is stretching-out the 25-year-old to start, it currently appears unlikely Burnes will open the season in the Brewers’ starting rotation. But in an organization whose rotation is likely to include the likes of Brett Anderson, Josh Lindblom and Eric Lauer (and even Woodruff, who has struggled to remain healthy as a pro), it’s highly likely Burnes will have an opportunity to re-seize a spot in the rotation at some point in 2020—even if he begins the season in the Pacific Coast League.
This offseason, Burnes was selected 436th overall in the XDL start-up draft and 464th in the FDL start-up draft. He had an ADP of 334.5 in the Prospects Live Best Ball dynasty drafts (I grabbed him 331st in my league). Heck, I even drafted him to my last active player slot in my home league (deep keeper 12-teamer, 276 MLB players rostered in active slots) and currently roster him in 3 of the 5 Draft Championship/Best Ball redrafts I’ve completed this preseason. Since Valentine’s Day, he has a redraft ADP of 449.67 according to NFBC. That’s the equivalent of a risk-free dart throw that could pay extreme dividends before the end of the regular season. I shouldn’t have to tell you how much value Burnes’ current, discounted price tag will provide when he puts everything together.
Corbin Burnes is only 25 years old. He has ultra-elite ‘stuff’ and the pedigree of a former top-50 prospect. He not only has potential to be one of the biggest stories of the 2020 season (though I’ll be back on him again next season if he fails to take a huge step forward this season), but he has the ingredients to someday be one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Consider this article a call to arms before the buy-low window begins to close.
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Featured image courtesy of photographer Michael McLoone and USA Today Sports