Corbin Burnes gives insight into how journaling made him an elite pitcher
The exterior of the newspaper is nothing special. Marine. Thick spiral. No decorative cover, no logo, no tag indicating it belongs to the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. It’s only on reading the inside pages that it becomes apparent that the owner can only be Brewers’ brainy right-hander Corbin Burnes.
Choose a page, any page, because the structure does not change. They all look alike. No deviation. No footnotes. No comments in parentheses. Inside the margins, it’s just Burnes and his process; there is no room for nonsense.
The Book of Burnes is required reading to better understand how he recently corrected a brief bout of mediocrity and returned to dominance – all at a time when the Brewers needed him at his best. With half their rotation on the disabled list, their offensive fights and their schedule hardened, the Brewers have turned to Burnes twice in less than a week. They needed reliability. With a steady similar to gravity, he delivered, reminding the industry why he is one of baseball’s most valuable pitchers.
“He will never let himself go too far,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He does a very good job of self-analysis.”
Whether it’s strikeout rate (32.6 percent, third in baseball), fWAR (2.2, 9th) or ERA (2.31, 10th), Burnes ranks somewhere in the top 10 baseball in a handful of major pitching categories. He swears he’s not chasing any of those numbers, that the process matters more than the results. Many athletes say similar things. But how many create their own stat and track it after each performance to hold themselves accountable for such code?
Anyone who knows anything about Burnes knows how committed he is to his process. That’s a big part of what makes it great. After three years of listening to Burnes discuss his routine, it was time to ask him to share his work: Would he allow Athleticism take a look at the pages of his diary, which he keeps in his locker inside the Brewers Pavilion?
“We can definitely do it and the grades are good,” Burnes said, “but no pictures.”
So, some images: think of a page divided into three parts, separated by two handwritten horizontal lines. A game receives a third of a page. There is not a lot of unused space.
In black ink, the words are mostly printed cleanly. Sometimes they seem a little more rushed or written with just a bit of grief: “Loss of concentration in the fifth”, with the four words almost all touching. But still, they are readable. They were written with a purpose.
Game entries begin in the left column of Burnes’ journal pages. There is a date, an opponent and numbers. It might look like this on the page:
The last number is what Burnes calls his “execution percentage.” This is the number of pitches he says he threw correctly out of his total amount – in the example above, that would be 59 out of 83 – of a given game. After games, this is how Burnes assesses whether he put in a good performance or not. It eliminates fortune, luck. There are times in games where he hooks a curveball and the batter misses. It’s great for his traditional casting line. It’s bad for his personal filing system. The latter is what he thinks he can learn best from.
“Executing pitches,” he said, “is something we can control.”
The day after his debut, the Brewers queued up a video of every pitch Burnes threw and distilled it into a reel. Along with his diary, Burnes monitors each pitch and keeps a count of each he deems unsuccessful. The process, he said, only takes him 15 to 20 minutes.
What is he looking for?
“It’s kind of an effect on everything,” Burnes said. “An 0-0 down and away cutter will have a wider margin compared to the 0-2 down and away cutter. So it just takes into account the count, the situation, the match. Location is obviously the main determining factor of this one. But, yeah, it just gives you the option to say, “the 0-2 backdoor cutter to lefties, we didn’t execute, so that’s something to work on.” Not only does this allow me to gauge performance without looking at results, but it also gives you an idea of what you need to work on that week.
To the right of the data, across the rest of the page, Burnes documents what he calls his “good, better, how,” a three-column checklist that might look like this:
Well: a few sentences on what he did well during the departure.
Better: a few sentences on what he can do best.
How: a few sentences about how it can be better.
For example, against the Mets last week, Burnes wrote in his journal next to the “good” part: Attack early. “Just because,” he said, “against the Padres and the Phillies (his two previous starts), we fell behind when the count started.” One thing he could have done better against the Mets, according to his diary: “We had a 30-minute round where I sat out last night, so it’s just finding ways to stay loose and stay focused. ” How to improve this in the future, he wrote, involves remembering different breathing techniques and moving through the tunnel. Minor tweaks and minor gripes to some – not Burnes.
As no surprise to anyone who has ever listened to Burnes say after a game, almost robotically, that he doesn’t get caught up in the moment and compare himself to other pitchers: he doesn’t notice any curves based on the opponent .
“It doesn’t matter who’s in the box,” he said. “It’s more about the game situation, the count, how we can execute the throw.”
However, those who are easier on themselves would understand the idea of context-based scoring, especially recently for Burnes. But no. Maybe that’s why the results were so strong. After leaving against the Cardinals on May 29, Burnes had a 1.95 ERA. His ERA jumped to 2.50, however, after allowing five runs in just 3 2/3 innings against the Padres. In his next start against the Phillies, he allowed three runs (one earned) in 4 1/3 innings. In each of his previous nine starts, he had pitched no less than six innings. Now Burnes was to see the Mets and Cardinals, two of baseball’s best rosters.
Against the Mets on June 15, he allowed just two runs and five hits in six innings with eight strikeouts (no walks). Execution percentage, he said, ranked favorably, especially with his cutter, one of the best throws in baseball. Mets manager Buck Showalter didn’t need to read the newspaper to find out.
“It reminds us why he’s one of the best pitchers in the National League, if not the best,” Showalter said. “Think of Mariano Rivera as a starter.”
Five days later, against the Cardinals on Monday, Burnes pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts. Once again, the execution percentage was there. Afterwards, it was the Cardinals who probably wondered what they could do best – and how – against Burnes’ cutter.
“Even if it was straight, it would be a tough pitch to hit at 96-98 (mph),” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. Athleticismit’s Katie Woo. “Just nobody throws a pitch like that.”
Burnes relies heavily on the cutter, but he is much more than a single throw. He recalled in St. Louis on Monday when he pitched a combination of five substitutions and busted balls in a third inning in which he only needed seven pitches. Goldschmidt was the first batter Burnes faced in the top of the fourth, and Burnes hit him a lead before four straight cutters. Goldschmidt hit a low fly ball to the center for the first out. Burnes mixes and matches constantly. He never settles down. There is always something to criticize, something to write in the journal under the heading “how to improve”. These are never empty.
“There are guys with good stuff and they don’t locate themselves and they get hit, but he was able to put it all together,” Goldschmidt said. “I think he would probably even say his freshman year he had similar stuff and he was a little touched, still good but not at the level of Cy Young he was at. He made some adjustments. I don’t know exactly what, but he has his command and he has developed other lands. Really, big credit to him for figuring out what this is going to take. He’s one of the best pitchers in the league. »
For Burnes, the process began after the 2019 season, when he had an 8.82 ERA. Around the same time he changed his pitching repertoire with the help of Brewers staff, including pitching coach Chris Hook, Burnes began working with sports psychologist Brian Cain. This is where the idea of journaling comes from. After his “good, better, how” routine every five days, Burnes calls Cain and they help him come up with a plan for the rest of the week to improve any shortcomings.
There’s an evolving book on Burnes, he’s just writing the pages.
(Corbin Burnes top photo: Brad Penner/USA Today)