The difference between fighting for survival in the big leagues and potential greatness? In the case of Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes, just a little tweak in the way he grips a baseball.
It's not an exaggeration to suggest that two seasons ago, Burnes was the worst pitcher in the majors, when he went 1-5 with an 8.82 ERA and allowed a staggering 17 home runs in 49 innings. His transformation began that offseason, when he started tinkering with a new pitch; then he broke out in 2020 and nearly won the National League ERA crown with a 2.11 mark. And now, he is the hottest pitcher on the planet.
The 26-year-old Burnes dismantled a struggling Chicago Cubs offense in a 7-0 victory on Wednesday, striking out 10 batters with no walks and two hits over six innings. His season line after three starts: 1-1, 18⅓ IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 30 SO.
"Somebody just told me the no walks, 30 strikeouts," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said after the game. "That has to be pretty historic to start a season, I'm not sure, but that's an incredible stat."
It is historic. Only three pitchers have begun a season with more strikeouts without issuing a walk:
In 2019, the league hit .330 off Burnes. They're hitting .067 off him in 2021, as Burnes has fanned 30 of the 62 batters he has faced. The difference-maker: a wicked cutter that would make Mariano Rivera proud.
What's interesting is that the pitch actually started out as a slider that Burnes tried to develop after that disastrous 2019 season.
"I had the idea in the offseason to throw two sliders," Burnes said on a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday. "It was the slider we'd seen previously in '18 and '19 and then a harder, tighter slider, which eventually kind of turned into this cutter. So, at one point, I was throwing two different sliders -- one with a little more depth, one with a little bit more horizontal -- and the curveball for more vertical, so I was going to come in with three breaking pitches. When we got into spring training, we realized it was going to be more of a cutter, and that's when we made a few tweaks: Let's make it an actual cutter versus a slider with some depth and I wouldn't worry about things blending together."
That minor tweak in grip -- from slider to cutter -- changed everything. In 2019, Burnes had primarily been a four-seam fastball/slider pitcher, mixing in a few curves and changeups. The problem: Batters absolutely destroyed his fastball, hitting .425 against it. According to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, Burnes' wOBA allowed on his fastball was the second worst of the pitch-tracking era (since 2008).
Now, in ownership of this unhittable cutter, Burnes has essentially ditched the four-seamer. Against the Cubs, he threw 42 cutters out of his 81 pitches and just nine fastballs (seven of those two-seamers). Yes, it also helps when that cutter comes in at 97 mph and is part of a lethal six-pitch arsenal: cutter, curveball, slider, changeup, two-seamer, four-seamer.
It's not all as simple as having one new pitch, of course. Burnes throws exclusively out of the stretch now. He said he has focused on getting the curveball and changeup to the same level as the cutter and slider. He is pitching with supreme confidence.
"Mentally, I've been locked in for 18 innings," he said.
As was the case with Rivera, the cutter apparently came pretty easy to Burnes, a natural outgrowth of his fastball.
"I've always been able to spin the ball really well; that's kind of been my calling card," Burnes had said Tuesday. "Even throwing a four-seam fastball, in the past it's always had a little bit of cutting action to it. In '18, we were able to get away with it. In '19, it was one of those things where I didn't have the command of it. I could throw it in the strike zone, but I didn't know where it was going to be.
"With a few things we cleaned up, with a few ball positioning things in the hand, we were able to take it and basically it's the cutter. When I throw it, I'm thinking through the process of throwing a four-seam fastball. For me, I think that's why it's become such an easy pitch. It's something I've thrown my entire life."
There's no reason to think he can't sustain this new level, other than he has to prove he can do it over 30 starts. The list of pitchers who can match his velocity, movement and pitch selection -- that list might start and end with Jacob deGrom -- is short. Burnes looks like a legitimate Cy Young contender.