Twenty-six times this season, Corbin Burnes had stood on the mound with a chance to throw ball four. Every time, he had thrown a strike. It wasn’t until the 127th batter that he faced that Burnes issued a walk.
Burnes, a Milwaukee Brewers right-hander, swears he doesn’t even think about it. He has a 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 had struck out 49 batters without issuing a walk before missing two starts with what had been an unspecified injury — he confirmed on Wednesday that he had an asymptomatic case of the coronavirus — and he started Thursday’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals with nine more. In doing so, he broke the major league records for most strikeouts to start a season without a walk (51 by Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen in 2017) and most consecutive strikeouts without a walk at any point in a season (56 by Curt Schilling of the Diamondbacks in 2002 and by Gerrit Cole of the Yankees this season).
But all streaks eventually come to an end, and Burnes finally issued a walk in the fifth inning of Thursday’s game, missing high on a 95 mile-per-hour cutter to Tommy Edman. Burnes got out of the inning but was relieved at the start of the sixth inning. The Brewers lost, 2-0.
In a season in which many pitching records would fall at this pace, Burnes may not be on top for long as Cole’s 56-strikeout streak is still active. But Burnes, who has developed into Milwaukee’s ace, is safe for at least a few more days because Cole pitched Wednesday.
“I think he might be better than anything I could do on a video game right now,” Brewers reliever Devin Williams, the National League’s rookie of the year last season, said of Burnes. Williams 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 1.57. He has recorded at least nine strikeouts in all six 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, had fanned 39.4 percent of opposing hitters entering Thursday, second only the Mets’ Jacob deGrom (41.3 percent) among pitchers with at least 80 innings. His 1.92 E.R.A. was also second best to deGrom, at 1.75.
“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 of 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, who now pitches for 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, in 2019.
“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.”
Entering Thursday’s game, Batters had 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 he 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 19 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 now he holds a pair of major league records.