Corbin Burnes, whom most saw as a Cy Young candidate again this season, gave up six earned runs and seven hits in 4.1 innings on Wednesday against the Mets. Fortunately for the Milwaukee Brewers, the offense bailed him out. Still, the runs allowed are a concern, and there is a recognizable pattern in his troubles. His refusal to pitch in the upper third of the strike zone stood out the most in his Wednesday start. The issue isn't new, but it bit him hard this time.
Of Burnes' 93 pitches, 62 were in the lower third, 19 in the middle third, and just 12 in the upper portion of the zone. That means a pitch ventured above the belt just 13 percent of the time. In fact, of his 12 pitches "up," seven were mistakes (e.g., curveball up and away to a lefty). When big-league hitters (especially veteran ones like those who populate the New York lineup) know they can ignore a pitch or a location, they can zero in on an area and attack. Hitting is as much about playing the percentages and "guessing" right as it is about hand-eye coordination, bat speed, and skill.
With that in mind, if you look at Burnes' pitch locations from 2022, you can see the problem: his lack of upper-third deliveries. The first image is the "Chase" zone, where batters would be tempted to swing at pitches clearly outside the zone. The second image is the "Shadow" area, where it's half strike zone and half out of the zone.
Of course, no one is asking Burnes to throw his slider, curve, or changeup above the belt, but the cutter, four-seamer, and even the sinker can be utilized upstairs, thanks to the velocity. Changing the hitter's eye level when seeing pitches is vital, altering the look of the ball coming out of the same arm slot. It also helps to create doubt and set up other pitches. For example, if Burnes throws a cutter just above the zone, then throws a curve that starts at the top of the zone, it's more likely a hitter takes the pitch, thinking it's another high heater. Alternatively, maybe his bat path goes over the top of the curve as his brain sees a flatter pitch with more velocity. Ignoring one-third of the strike does nothing but help hitters, and that could have been part of the reason he struggled for stretches during the second half of last season.
As for Wednesday, take slugger Pete Alonso against Burnes. He saw four pitches, all of them down and away, in his first at-bat. Alonso fouled one off, took one for a strike, and struck out on a foul tip to end the appearance.
In his second battle with Burnes, Alonso clearly looked for a pitch down to ambush. He got the sinker at the bottom of the zone and in the middle of the plate, went low through his legs, and ripped the ball at 105.8 miles per hour to right-center to tie the game at four.
Game-tying Polar Bear Blast! 🐻❄️ pic.twitter.com/75ctqxZ7u1— New York Mets (@Mets) April 5, 2023
The third time Alonso stepped to the plate, the first three pitches from Burnes were in the lower third. Burnes then threw a 2-1 cutter up and away that Alonzo took for strike two. Why did he take it? Likely because he was shocked. That would have been a terrific time for another cutter up (maybe to the front door on the inner part of the plate) or the sinker up and in. Instead, Burnes went with a slider down in the zone. He wanted it on the edge of the outside corner, but it stayed too close to the middle, and Alonso destroyed it at 111.8 MPH for his second two-run dinger of the day.
With the amount of video and analytical study teams and players do in the modern game, even pitchers as phenomenal as Burnes need to evolve constantly. Some hitters might be unwilling to change their approach or only look for certain pitches, but many veterans--and certainly the game's best--will do what it takes to succeed. Burnes needs to quit being stubborn and explore the top of the strike zone. He has plenty of talent and command to utilize that piece of real estate. If he does, hitters will be in a ton of trouble, the Brewers will win the NL Central, and Burnes can get the enormous free-agent contract he wants in a couple of years.