Standing atop the NL Central standings is the Milwaukee Brewers, a team many baseball fans prior to this season regarded merely as “Christian Yelich’s team.” However the tides appear to be turning in Milwaukee. That’s not to say Christian Yelich is not still a star in his own right, but the Brew Crew’s road to success this past month has been paved by a two-headed monster in their starting rotation consisting of aces Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes.
Every year prior to the start of the regular season, there’s talk as to what team has the best 1-2 punch in their rotation. This year in those conversations, Woodruff and Burnes appeared to be a mere afterthought, regarded at most as an honorable mention by most. Now, on April 28th, the two already seemed to put any doubts to rest quite quickly.
In recent years, the Brewers have had a bit of a little “curse” going on with their Opening Day starting pitchers. Not since Yovani Gallardo back in 2014 had a Milwaukee starter make back-to-back Opening Day starts. Thankfully, when Brandon Woodruff took the mound on Opening Day this year, he put that curse to rest.
While it might sound silly, it was actually a pretty symbolic moment for this Brewers team. Brandon Woodruff has been that guy for Milwaukee for a while now; his greatness is nothing new. Woodruff had a breakout year in 2019, originally slotted in as the #3 starter behind Jhoulys Chacin and Freddy Peralta, but by the end of the season, he emerged as the homegrown ace Milwaukee had been waiting for.
Woodruff solidified his ace status in the 60-game season last year across five starts. Among qualified starters in 2020, the only pitcher with a better swinging strike rate on a four-seamer than Woodruff was Jacob deGrom. Woodruff ranked 7th overall in WAR amongst qualified starting pitchers in the end.
Woodruff’s five-pitch arsenal is nothing to scoff at; his slider against righties and changeup against lefties leaves hitters stumped. Though he most commonly uses his four-seamer (34% of the time to be exact), he also has a sinker and curveball in addition to the other three.
Another important aspect of Woodruff’s game is his endurance in games. In 2020, he led their starters in innings pitched per game averaging 5.7 innings per start. He’s teetering around the same average so far this year in five starts, pitching 29 innings for an average of 5.8 innings per start. For a while in Milwaukee, starting pitchers lasting long in games was an issue, and while luckily they have one of the best bullpens in MLB, it’s important to have that reliance and stability in your starter.
Brewers’ second baseman Kolten Wong discussed this recently with MLB.com on Sunday after the Crew’s 6-0 shutout win against the Cubs, with Woodruff pitching six innings, allowing just two hits, no runs, and two walks. “They’re both our aces,” said Wong of Woodruff and Burnes, “but Woody’s leading us and he’s been dominating the way he is, I mean, it’s just so fun to understand that you’ve got two horses like that in your stable that can go out and compete with anybody.”
That, of course, is the big story with the Brewers this year. Brandon Woodruff has established himself as Milwaukee’s ace over the last couple of years. Now all of the sudden, they’ve got Woodruff in addition to the hottest pitcher in baseball, Corbin Burnes.
Burnes is another homegrown product of Milwaukee’s, and between the two of them, it’s safe to say their pitching development over the previous years has finally come to fruition.
Corbin Burnes had a solid rookie year in 2018 as a reliever for Milwaukee. That season was the Brewers’ most successful postseason run in recent history, taking the division before losing the NL pennant to the Dodgers in seven. Burnes pitched 38 innings in relief in 30 games, ending the year with a 2.61 ERA. By 2019, Craig Counsell felt the 24-year old Burnes was ready to join the starting rotation after his impressive rookie season. Unfortunately, things did not go well for Burnes as a starter. He made just four starts in 2019 and allowed at least four earned runs, including at least two home runs, in each game. By the end of April, with an ERA of 10.70, Burnes was sent down to Triple-A for a few weeks. When he returned, he was solely used as a bullpen arm.
Even with his demotion to the bullpen, Burnes did not find much luck in his game in 2019 like he did the previous year. He ended the season with an abysmal 8.82 ERA, and it seemed like many were already writing off the once-promising young starting pitching prospect.
It seems Burnes took that narrative personally. After meeting with a sports psychologist in the offseason to change his mental approach to the game, 2020 Corbin Burnes looked to be a totally different pitcher than the year before. In 2019 Burnes utilized his four-seamer 52.5% of the time, his slider 30.6%, curveball 8%, changeup 4%, and sinker 3.2%, excising his cutter entirely. Suddenly, he was relying much more on that sinker, cutter, and changeup. In 2020, he threw his sinker 30.8% of the time, cutter 29.7%, and changeup 11%.
Burnes’ switch to an arsenal reliant on sinkers and cutters took him from unwatchable to nearly unhittable some days. In terms of WAR, he ranked ninth amongst all qualified starting pitchers in 2020. He finished the season sixth in Cy Young voting, with an ERA of 2.11 allowing just one or zero runs in seven of his nine starts. He had 88 strikeouts and just 24 walks, including a five-game stretch allowing just one earned run and six walks with 47 strikeouts in 29.1 innings pitched.
So far in 2021, Burnes’ season seems to be an extension of that five-game stretch. Prior to Monday night’s 8-0 loss to the Marlins, Burnes came into the game with an 0.37 ERA, allowing just eight hits, one earned run, 40 strikeouts, and no walks in 24.1 innings pitched across four games. He finally showed flashes of being human Monday night against the Marlins, allowing eight hits and four earned runs, but even then, over the course of five innings, he was still able to strike out nine batters and continue his no-walk streak. The loss brought Burnes’ ERA from 0.37 to 1.53, and his WHIP to 0.55.
Burnes has already made history this season setting the MLB record for strikeouts by a starter without a walk, and as of this writing, he still has not issued a free pass, making every one of his starts a must-see game for every baseball fan.
With the Brewers’ offense both without Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, it’s become more and more evident this team’s success is founded in their starting pitching. Even with a strong bullpen with guys like Josh Hader, Devin Williams, and Brent Suter, their rotation is the one winning games for them. It’s still early, but I think it’s safe to say the Brewers have one of, if not the, best 1-2 punch in all of baseball.
Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter and IG)