Excellence Of Brewers Ace Corbin Burnes Extends Well Beyond Strikeouts
The Milwaukee Brewers have been one of baseball’s best teams all season, thanks in large part to the excellence of their starting rotation. While Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta have shone brightly for large stretches of the year, Corbin Burnes has emerged as the clear ace.
Burnes has been overpowering, to say the least, striking out 196 batters in only 144 innings. He ranks 3rd in the NL in the former category, despite ranking only 19th in the latter through Tuesday’s games. If you dig a little deeper into this pitching line, you’ll find another area in which he’s performing just as well - contact management.
The first inkling you get is the puny number “5” in his home runs allowed column. All of the 18 NL pitchers with more innings pitched have yielded 14 or more. It goes even deeper than that, however.
Contact management is real. Each year, I measure performance in this area for all ERA qualifiers in both leagues. The recipient of my annual Contact Manager of the Year hardware is the pitcher in each league who posts the lowest Adjusted Contact Score. In other words, based on the exit speed and launch angle of all batted balls allowed, the hurlers who “should have” yielded the least damage on balls in play. Earlier this week, we took a look at the state of this race in the American League. Today’s it’s the National League’s turn.
The NL boasts a much stronger group of high-end contact managers than the AL in 2021. All of the five players highlighted below - with the possible exception of Burnes - either already has or almost certainly will reach the 162-inning qualification threshold. In the AL, it’s actually possible that none of the current contact management leaders will do so.
Two pitchers just missed the list below - German Marquez of the Rockies and Sandy Alcantara of the Marlins, who just might have sneaked on if last night’s start was included. (All stats are through Tuesday night’s games.)
5. Walker Buehler, Dodgers RHP
85 Adjusted Contact Score
If we were measuring contact management performance independent of exit speed and launch angle - instead measuring simply the results of all balls in play - Buehler would be the NL leader with a 67 UNadjusted Contact Score. He’s had good fortune on all batted ball types, posting 59 vs. 79, 82 vs. 102 and 70 vs. 93 Unadjusted vs. Adjusted Fly Ball, Line Drive and Ground Ball Contact Scores. His biggest strength has been his ability to induce fly balls in the “can of corn” zone. Buehler has yielded 50 90-99 mph fly balls thus far, comfortably more than anyone else on this list, and that 79 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score does rank 5th among NL qualifiers. His average launch angle (11.0 degrees) is the only one in double digits among this group.
4. Luis Castillo, Reds RHP
84.2 Adjusted Contact Score
Had to go to decimal points to break the tie for 3rd between a pair of Reds’ starters. Castillo has been way better than his mainstream numbers this year, as he has been hurt by his home park and team defense. His actual, Unadjusted Contact Score is an uninspiring 104. Castillo is a ground ball machine, currently posting the highest grounder rate and the lowest average launch angle allowed (3.8 degrees) among qualifying NL starters. He’s the antithesis of Buehler - he’s been UNlucky on all batted balls types, posting 113 vs. 82, 94 vs. 84 and 128 vs. 106 Unadjusted vs. Adjusted Fly Ball, Line Drive and Ground Ball Contact Scores. That 84 Adjusted Liner Contact Score is the best among NL ERA qualifiers.
3. Wade Miley, Reds LHP
84.1 Adjusted Contact Score
Solid contact management skills turn the other pitchers on this list from good to potentially great starting pitchers. Miley needs to excel at contact management to merely survive, as he lacks the stuff to miss bats regularly. He’s excelled in this regard for years now, peaking in 2019 when he earned AL Contact Manager of the Year honors as an Astro. It’s all about grounder volume and authority suppression for Miley. His grounder rate is nearly a full standard deviation above league average, and his average grounder authority allowed of 80.5 mph ranks 2nd among qualifiers. His overall average authority allowed of 84.5 mph also ranks 2nd.
2. Zack Wheeler, Phillies RHP
77 Adjusted Contact Score
And now for the two pitchers with a legitimate chance to emerge as 2021 NL Contact Manager of the Year. They are also, I would submit, the two most deserving NL Cy Young Award candidates at present. What isn’t there to like about 2020’s NL Contact Manager of the Year? He’s a rare hurler who regularly gets outs at the top and bottom of the zone. His grounder rate is almost a full standard deviation above league average, and he also generates pop ups at a higher than league average rate. He smothers authority across all batted ball types, posting 75, 86 and 87 Adjusted Fly Ball, Line Drive and Grounder Contact Scores. The first two of those marks rank 4th and 2nd in the NL, while his overall average authority allowed of 83.7 mph is easily the best.
1. Corbin Burnes, Brewers RHP
71 Adjusted Contact Score
Now back to Mr. Burnes. He’s a stealth ground ball generator, with a grounder rate close to Wheeler’s, though he’s allowed significantly harder authority on the ground than his Philly counterpart. He’s absolutely suffocating fly ball authority - his 49 Adjusted Fly Ball Contact Score is easily the best among qualifiers in either league. He’s allowed only those five homers, and just nine flies hit at 100 mph or higher. That pales in comparison to the 43 90-99 mph flies he’s allowed, that do a fraction of the damage of 100+ mph ones. His overall average authority allowed of 85.0 mph trails only Wheeler and Miley among NL qualifiers. Long-term, it’s going to be more difficult for Burnes to repeat his 2021 contact management feats than it will be for Wheeler, but for this one year, Burnes is the favorite to take home the trophy.
Next week, we’ll update the Cy Young races in both leagues. Does the AL race extend beyond Gerrit Cole and perhaps Lance Lynn? Can anyone compete with Burnes’ and Wheeler’s respective quality and quantity edges in the NL? We shall see.