Both Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are coming into 2019 with pretty high expectations. Both pitchers were top 5 prospects in the organization before last season with Woodruff bouncing between the pro club and Triple A in 2017 and Burnes seeing his first Major League action in 2018. They both became household names in Wisconsin due to stellar performances at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs last season. Considering the question mark that Jimmy Nelson will be returning from shoulder reconstruction and a likely decline the the performance of Chacin, Woodruff and Burnes will be looked upon to provide a boost to the starting rotation. But who do you think will make the bigger impact this season? Lets take a look.
In his debut season Corbin Burnes did not disappoint. At the beginning of the 2018 season Baseball Prospectus ranked Burnes as the Brewers’ 4th best prospect. He went on to pitch in 30 games displaying a 2.61 ERA, 3.70 FIP, and tallying 7 wins in that time. I’m not a proponent of the win stat but at the same time its interesting how his team credited him with that may wins in only 30 games. In addition he pitched 9 post-season innings allowing two runs and striking out 11. So what is it that makes Burnes so special? Hes not a super ground ball pitcher, he doesn’t really walk too many people, nor is he a strikeout machine. His fastball is in the mid 90s which is about average for today’s relief pitchers. Something unique about Burnes is that he was 26th lowest among the 250 relief pitchers with at least 30 innings pitches in contact percentage and 21st in whiff percentage. Within the top 30 in that category, Burnes threw the most percentage of pitches in the zone. In other words he was missing bats while pitching in the zone more that any of the top strikeout pitchers. This is odd considering he was not piling on strikeouts. The figure on the left displays what occurs on a 2 strike count for Burnes. As you can see most of the time there is either a hit, ball in play, or ball thrown. Only 17.2% of the time does the pitch result in a whiff. From a comparison standpoint, Raisel Iglesias of the Reds had about the same swinging strike percentage for all pitches but in the case where he has 2 strikes on a batter he gets a whiff 20.5% of the time. Will Smith of the Giant had slightly lower swinging strike percentage for all pitches but a 23% whiff rate on 2 strike pitches. It is just the case that Burnes pitches more to contact or just has not refined a dominant “out” pitch yet. He throws mostly his 4 seam fastball and slider on 2 strike pitches. He had a .197 wOBA on 2 strike fastball pitches compared to a .273 on his slider, however his slider resulted in a spike in whiff% by 5 percentage points. If Burnes could perfect his slider as an out pitch he could see an increase in strikeouts this season.
Woodruff came into the season as the Brewers’ 7th ranked prospect. While he was up in 2017, he did not find much success. This season, however, he shined especially in the postseason where he pitched 12.1 innings and gave up only 2 earned runs while having a 14.59 k/9. What may have been more impressive was this:
He just casually hit a dinger against probably the best pitcher of this generation. Anyway back to his pitching. While not being regarded as a strikeout pitcher, over 42 innings last season he put up a 9.99 k/9 while posting a 3.61 ERA. Like Burnes he has a mid 90s fastball and also throws a slider for his secondary pitch. Woodruff has a much higher contact percentage than Burnes. Woodruff was effective last season in producing ground balls. Out of 410 pitchers with at least 110 balls in play, Woodruff had the 35th lowest launch angle.
GM David Stearns mentioned at the end of last season that Burns would enter the 2019 season in the starting rotation. It is also expected for Woodruff to be in the starting rotation. Steamer projects both to have mid 4.00 ERAs with Woodruff getting a heavier workload. Burnes has a much higher ceiling than Woodruff. Burnes could elevate to be a solid number 2 started in the future if he can improve his slider to be a 2 strike out pitch. Woodruff will be a nice 3 or 4 starter. Both should be big contributors for the Brewers this season.