The Yankees’ winter business is off to a flying start. With Juan Soto secured for next season, attention turns squarely to the starting rotation. The Yankees need at least another frontline starter after watching Luis Severino, Frankie Montas, Domingo Germán, and now Michael King depart while also not knowing what they’ll get from Carlos Rodón and Nestor Cortes. There will be tough competition for the top-end starters remaining on the free agent market, so beyond Yoshinobu Yamamoto, New York’s best avenue to acquiring an impact starter may be to explore a trade for Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes.
2023 Statistics: 32 starts, 193.2 IP, 3.39 ERA (127 ERA+), 3.81 FIP, 3.80 xFIP, 25.5 percent K%, 8.4 percent BB%, 3.4 fWAR
2024 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projections: 32 starts, 200 IP, 3.70 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 26.5 percent K%, 7.5 percent BB%, 3.9 fWAR
Contract Status: Projected to earn $15.1 million in third and final year of arbitration eligibility, free agent following 2024 season.
Burnes has firmly established himself as one of the five or ten best starting pitchers in the sport. Since he joined the Brewers rotation as a full-time starter in 2020, only Zack Wheeler has accrued more fWAR, with Burnes also placing third in FIP (2.84), fifth in ERA (2.86), and eighth in strikeout rate (30.9 percent) among qualified starters over that stretch. He was the unequivocal best qualified starter in baseball between 2020 and 2021, racking up almost 10 wins above replacement while striking out over a third of batters faced en route to securing the 2021 NL Cy Young.
Results have regressed a touch in each of the two subsequent seasons. While it was always unreasonable to expect him to maintain subbasement-level home run rates thanks to an unsustainably-low home-run-per-fly-ball rate, the loss of strikeouts and uptick in walks have provided minor cause for concern. 2023 in particular represented a ”down” year for the Brewers ace (if a 3.39 ERA in 193.2 innings can be described as such), with his strikeout-minus-walk ratio and called-strike-plus-whiff-rate falling below the elite tiers of 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
This can be traced to slight degradation in both stuff and command. His whiff rate dropped an alarming seven points relative to the previous four seasons, with hitters making more contact both in and out of the zone while chasing 4.5 percentage points less than the previous two seasons. He suffered the most in the region classified by Statcast as the “Chase” zone — fully out of strike zone but still close enough to induce a chase roughly a quarter of the time — performing 14 runs worse than last season per Statcast’s Swing/Take metric. Burnes was the second-best pitcher in baseball when hitters swung at his Chase-zone pitches in 2022 but then tied for ninth-worst pitcher in baseball on all pitches in the Chase-zone in 2023.
Burnes’ effectiveness begins and ends with his cutter. We’ve raved multiple times on the site about pitchers who throw unicorn pitches, and Burnes’ cutter certainly qualifies. As a pitcher who naturally likes to stay on the side of the ball rather than pronate over it, Burnes switched out a four-seamer that graded as the worst pitch in baseball in 2019 for a cutter that immediately became a top-ten pitch in baseball in each of the subsequent four seasons. There’s no other starter in the league who throws the cutter remotely as much as Burnes does, and few at his velocity (95 mph) and four-seam-like lift (-6 degree vertical attack angle). In essence, it behaves like a high spin rising four-seamer with the late darting lateral movement reminiscent of Mariano Rivera’s cutter.
It appears the cutter is in part to blame for Burnes’ mild downturn in 2023. It operated roughly one mph slower than the previous three seasons and lost roughly an inch of movement in both the vertical and horizontal directions. This led the pitch to lose roughly eight points in whiff rate, strikeout rate, and put-away rate as hitters were no longer overpowered by its velocity and movement.
All of this is not to say Burnes is somehow a second-rate starter. You can come down some from stratospheric heights and still be at an elite level. A lot of this is down to the other pitches in his arsenal. Among pitchers who ended at least 50 plate appearances with a curveball, Burnes’ Uncle Charlie turned in the third-highest whiff rate (48.8 percent) and fourth-highest strikeout rate (52.6 percent) while holding hitters to the seventh-lowest average (.133). He also tweaked the seam orientation of his slider so that it represents the sweeper that has disseminated across the Yankees pitching staff and the results were immediate — it exhibited the 10th-most horizontal movement vs. average of any slider in baseball while racking up a 43.8-percent whiff rate and 38.4-percent strikeout rate.
Burnes is entering his final year of arbitration eligibility and projected to earn just over $15 million. While the Brewers are not under a direct mandate to lower payroll, rumors have circulated that they would entertain offers on their expensive rental players — Burnes and Willy Adames. However, recent reports suggest that Milwaukee intend to keep Burnes for a final playoff push in 2024, though this could just be a tactic to drive up his asking price.
Similar to Soto and Alex Verdugo, Burnes would only be on the books for one year, allowing the Yankees to maximize on their competitive window in 2024 while still maintaining payroll flexibility beyond the upcoming season. As a rental with an expensive arbitration number, Burnes shouldn’t cost the moon, but as still one of the best tentatively available starters this winter, it will likely still sting to acquire his services. That’s a price the Yankees should be willing to pay.