The Brewers' situation isn't dire just yet, but they really needed Wednesday's win over the surprising Tigers. They entered the day 5 1/2 games out of first in the NL Central, 2 1/2 games out of second place and 2 1/2 games out of the No. 8 seed in a crowded NL Wild Card field with the Mets (1/2 game) and Reds (one game) hot on their trail.
After Wednesday, the Brewers have just 19 games remaining.
Thanks to the offense exploding for 19 runs on 21 hits and a dominant effort from starting pitcher Corbin Burnes, it was a pretty easy victory.
The only thing keeping Burnes from perfection through seven innings was a mistake that allowed a triple to center field to Willi Castro. If the game was close and Burnes didn't allow the triple, it's possible we would be talking about his perfect game right now. Alas, he gave up the triple and that's reality. I'm just saying that's how dominant he was.
Burnes is in a really good groove right now. In his last three outings, he's now allowed only one run on seven hits in 19 innings with 29 strikeouts against three walks. That's the stuff of aces. On the season, he's now 3-0 with a 1.99 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 64 strikeouts in 45 1/3 innings. That's in six starts and three long relief appearances, but it doesn't seem like he's going back to the bullpen anytime soon.
A fourth-round pick in 2016 by the Brewers, Burnes established himself as a prospect within two years. Prior to the 2018 season, Baseball America had him as the 74th-best prospect in baseball and he rose to number 46 by the publication before 2019. He was part of the vaunted 2018 Brewers' bullpen as they rode it to Game 7 of the NLCS, but he was always ticketed for the rotation.
Burnes started the 2019 season in the rotation, but it was a disaster. A 10.70 ERA through four starts included 11 home runs allowed in 17 2/3 innings. A demotion to Triple-A happened. He came back up quickly as a reliever, but had two more stints in the minors. His final MLB line in 2019: 1-5, 8.82 ERA, 1.84 WHIP, 17 HR in 49 innings. The strikeouts (70) were there, but nothing else was.
Then came the total reworking of Burnes' arsenal. The Brewers thought Burnes' four-seam fastball had some cut and, as such, resembled his slider too much (source: The Athletic).
The result? Here's Burnes' pitch usage in 2019 compared to 2020 on a percentage basis (before the dominant outing on Wednesday (data via Baseball Savant):
Obviously, the usage of pitches needs to vary a lot more when a pitcher is used as a starter instead of as a reliever, but it's a stark contrast in his usage as a whole. It's a total reversal on both ends there. The sinker and cutter were almost nonexistent last year and now they are Burnes' two main offerings.
Wednesday, he was actually a bit more slider heavy than he's been overall, and it was effective. With the sinker being used 31 times and cutter 28 times, Burnes' slider generated 13 swings-and-misses on the 24 times he threw it. The cutter was unbelievably effective. Of the 28 he thew, 10 were swing-and-miss, 11 were called strikes, five were foul balls, leaving just three in play. Also of note: He threw just one four-seamer. Remember, he threw that pitch more than half the time last season.
There are bound to be hiccups. It's baseball. There always are. It appears that the painful 2019 paved the way for Burnes to truly unlock his immense upside, thanks to a reworking of his pitch usage.