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Can Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes Deliver MLB’s First Sabermetric Pitching Triple Crown?

Even with Jacob deGrom and his 1.08 ERA injured, the NL Cy Young race is shaping up as an all-timer. Walker Buehler is 14-3 with a 2.32 ERA. Zack Wheeler leads the field in innings, strikeouts, complete games, and shutouts. Max Scherzer leads in ERA and WHIP, and is on course for one of the greatest post-trade sprints in league history.

Yet even among this illustrious group, Corbin Burnes is enjoying the most spectacular season of all. The Brewers’ right-hander has posted his fair share of statement games, including a record-tying 10 consecutive strikeouts in a start in August and eight no-hit, 14-strikeout innings in Milwaukee’s combined no-hitter in Burnes’s most recent start.

The totality of Burnes’s performance this season, moreover, is unprecedented. Right now, Burnes leads all qualified National League pitchers in both strikeouts (12.4) and walks (1.7) per nine innings; the only other AL/NL pitcher to lead his league in both is Walter Johnson, all the way back in 1913.

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Oh, and Burnes is ahead of all other NL starters in home run rate, too, having surrendered just five dingers all season, or 0.3 per nine innings. Nobody has ever led his league in all three categories in the same season before.

These three statistics aren’t picked at random: They are the so-called Three True Outcomes, so named because they involve a simple pitcher-batter confrontation rather than dragging in the defense. For pitchers, this trio forms the basis of the class of modern defense-independent pitching statistics (DIPS), first researched by Voros McCracken around the turn of the century.

The idea is that strikeouts, walks, and home runs are the three outcomes over which the pitcher has the most direct control. Burnes hasn’t excelled when balls are hit into the field of play: He’s allowed a .304 BABIP, versus a league average of .289, and Statcast estimates that Burnes’s defenders have cost him four outs this season. (As a team, with all pitchers included, Milwaukee ranks fourth in the majors with a .273 BABIP allowed, and Brewers defenders have saved four to five outs for other starters like Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta.)

But Burnes is the NL’s best in those three areas of direct pitcher control. We might call this feat, if he sustains it over the rest of the rapidly dwindling regular season, the McCracken Triple Crown (as distinguished from the decidedly context-dependent stats in the generally acknowledged pitching Triple Crown: wins, ERA, and total strikeouts). Of course, that phrase doesn’t really exist yet—but there hasn’t been any need for it to exist because, again, Burnes would be the first.

Only a couple of players have ever really come close. This chart shows every NL pitcher to lead the league in two of the three categories in the same season, as well as his rank among qualified NL starters in the remaining statistic:

NL Pitchers to Lead in 2 of 3 Sabermetric Stats

Year Pitcher Categories Rank in Other Stat
Year Pitcher Categories Rank in Other Stat
2012 Gio González Strikeouts, homers 38th
2008 Tim Lincecum Strikeouts, homers 29th
1997 Greg Maddux Walks, homers 18th
1995 Greg Maddux Walks, homers 7th
1984 Dwight Gooden Strikeouts, homers 23rd
1948 Harry Brecheen Strikeouts, homers 4th
1947 Ewell Blackwell Strikeouts, homers 11th
1939 Mort Cooper Strikeouts, homers 29th
1924 Rube Benton Walks, homers 26th
1922 Babe Adams Walks, homers 28th
1914 Ben Tincup Strikeouts, homers 29th
1905 Deacon Phillippe Walks, homers 10th

The Cardinals’ Harry Brecheen finished fourth in walk rate in 1948, 0.22 walks per nine behind the Dodgers’ Preacher Roe. Nobody else has placed in the top five in the third missing stat. The AL version of the chart offers one player who came closer, but still didn’t achieve the trifecta:

AL Pitchers to Lead in 2 of 3 Sabermetric Stats

Year Pitcher Categories Rank in Other Stat
Year Pitcher Categories Rank in Other Stat
2008 Cliff Lee Walks, homers 16th
2003 Pedro Martínez Strikeouts, homers 11th
2000 Pedro Martínez Strikeouts, homers 2nd
1999 Pedro Martínez Strikeouts, homers 2nd
1998 Roger Clemens Strikeouts, homers 26th
1995 Randy Johnson Strikeouts, homers 6th
1977 Nolan Ryan Strikeouts, homers 44th
1969 Sam McDowell Strikeouts, homers 21st
1965 Sam McDowell Strikeouts, homers 35th
1948 Lou Brissie Strikeouts, homers 26th
1940 Bob Feller Strikeouts, homers 17th
1936 Johnny Allen Strikeouts, homers 16th
1935 Mel Harder Walks, homers 19th
1916 Walter Johnson Strikeouts, homers 5th
1913 Walter Johnson Strikeouts, walks 28th
1909 Addie Joss Walks, homers 34th
1908 Rube Waddell Strikeouts, homers 26th

In consecutive seasons, Pedro Martínez led the AL in strikeout and home run rates but placed second in walk rate. He came achingly close in 1999, falling short by 0.03 walks per nine: With just one fewer walk from him, or one more walk from Oakland’s Gil Heredia, Martínez would’ve led in walk rate, landing all three legs of this new triple crown.

Naturally, given his dominance in those three statistics, Pedro in 1999 set the liveball era record for FIP (fielding-independent pitching, the most-cited secondary ERA estimator), with a mark of 1.39. Burnes in 2021 has moved into second place, at 1.50. In terms of the elements of the sport most under a pitcher’s direct control, he’s nearly completed one of the most dominant seasons ever.

That’s quite a turnaround from just two seasons ago: In 2019, Burnes posted an 8.82 ERA in 49 innings, with 3.1 homers allowed per nine innings and a .414 BABIP, the fourth-highest in AL/NL history among pitchers with at least 40 innings. Batters especially annihilated the four-seamer that Burnes threw more than half the time, with a .425 batting average and .823 slugging percentage against the pitch, according to Statcast. Thirteen of the 17 homers Burnes allowed came off his fastball.

Burnes told The Ringer’s Michael Baumann earlier this season that as he developed in the minor leagues, “My four-seamer started to get straighter and have a slight cut action, which took away the effectiveness of my four-seamer. I came up in ’18 and was able to get away with it, but in ’19 it got exposed.”

So Burnes scrapped the rotten pitch, replacing it with a cutter-sinker combination in 2020 and relying even more on the cutter in 2021. The results have been extraordinary; he would have contended for the Cy Young award in the shortened 2020 season, if not for a late-season injury, and began a chase for history a year later, starting his 2021 campaign with a record 58 strikeouts before issuing his first walk.

The relationship between the FIP stats and pitcher control is not quite as clean as McCracken’s initial research suggested. Batting average on balls in play isn’t completely random—soft contact matters—nor are the three “true” outcomes fully independent of defensive input: The catcher in particular plays a role, and Milwaukee’s Omar Narváez, once a terrible framer in Seattle, now rates as one of the majors’ best.

But the bulk of this statistical résumé is a credit to Burnes. A league lead in both strikeout and walk rates is itself a once-in-a-century phenomenon, and the only other player to achieve it might as well have been playing a different sport. In 1913, Johnson led the majors with 6.3 strikeouts per nine innings; in 2021, that rate would rank fifth to last among qualified starters. And despite his lead in those two categories, Johnson didn’t complete the McCracken Triple Crown because three AL starters didn’t allow a single home run in more than 240 innings apiece. (Johnson is actually tied for most home runs allowed by any AL pitcher that year, with nine. What a slacker.)

In fact, Johnson is one of just two pitchers ever to lead his league in strikeout, walk, and home run rates at any point in his career, not just in the same season. The Big Train won seven strikeout rate titles, two walk rate titles, and three home run rate titles (just not in 1913). And Mort Cooper won the strikeout rate and home run rate titles in 1939, plus the walk rate title in 1946.

In other words: No player since integration has won all three rate stat crowns at any point—and now Burnes is almost done nabbing them all in the same season.

So, what are Burnes’s chances to accomplish not only that feat, but to win the first McCracken Triple Crown? The easy stat at this point is home run rate, where nobody else is close. Burnes could allow seven consecutive home runs without recording an out—remember, he’s allowed only five all year—and still lead in this stat.

NL Home Run Rate Leaders

Pitcher HR/9
Pitcher HR/9
Corbin Burnes 0.30
Zack Wheeler 0.74
Marcus Stroman 0.75
Wade Miley 0.79
Kevin Gausman 0.79

His lead in the other two is somewhat more tenuous. Four innings without a strikeout would drop him behind Scherzer in strikeouts per nine, and just two more walks without an out would mean he falls behind Scherzer in walk rate. This new, unique Triple Crown race will go down to the wire—just as the broader Cy Young race will, as well.

The competition keeps trying to one-up each other. Last week, Wheeler shut out Burnes’s Brewers for six innings, with nine strikeouts and no walks, so Burnes responded with eight no-hit innings, so Scherzer followed the next day with an immaculate inning, his 3,000th career strikeout, and eight one-hit innings all in the same game.

Yet even amid that competitive crucible, the pure numbers seem to support Burnes’s case most of all. In a sabermetric era, Burnes is mounting a statistical, sabermetrically aligned case utterly unique in league history. If he’s the best at all the main roles under a pitcher’s control—amassing strikeouts, avoiding walks, and outright shunning homers—how could any other pitcher possibly beat him?

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