Fewer Ks, but also a low ERA: Corbin Burnes talks strikeouts

Orioles right-hander Corbin Burnes, the 2021 National League Cy Young Award winner and a pitcher who finished seventh and eighth for that honor the last two years, is having another strong season. It’s his first year in Baltimore and could be his only year with the Orioles.

He is 3-2 with a 2.68 ERA over nine starts. His ERA and his .579 OPS against are both the best numbers he has posted since that Cy Young season.

But one area on the stat sheet that looks quite different for Burnes is his strikeouts total. He got 11 on Opening Day and looked dominant then with big swing-and-miss stuff, but his K rate is 7.17 per nine innings since then.

This is a pitcher with a combined 677 strikeouts (second in the majors to Gerrit Cole) from 2021 through 2023. His K rate for those three years was 10.8.

But it’s 8.2 this season, and as of yesterday Burnes ranks tied for 20th in the American League in strikeouts.

Burnes knows that his strikeouts are down, but he doesn’t see a problem.

He sees a pitcher having another good year and one facing opponents who know about his propensity to put away hitters with a strikeout. So some teams are doing all they can to not strike out against him.

Take last Monday, for instance, when he faced Toronto. Burnes fanned just two batters over six innings while giving up just one run. That was his lowest K total as a starting pitcher for his career. He has also had games of just three and four strikeouts this season.

“We are seeing a different approach against me,” Burnes said during an interview Friday in the Baltimore clubhouse. “It was easy to see that Blue Jays lineup approach was, if they get to two strikes, they were doing all that they can to put the ball in play. I think that is kind of how the game is changing. You are seeing lineups change to more of a contact approach. Things tend to happen more when the ball is put in play.

“That is one thing you are seeing. Also, pitch-mix-wise I am a little bit different. Pitch sequencing is one of the things I’ve been looking into recently to try and combat this approach when they get to two strikes and just kind of throw the bat at it to put the ball in play.

“I will not say I don’t like it. Lot of groundball outs, and when you have this defense behind you, those outs are made. Can’t really complain about it. But definitely would like to see a few more strikeouts, but it is not something I am going to chase.”

By the way, Burnes is right. Strikeouts are down a bit in the AL, with pitchers averaging 8.9 strikeouts per nine in 2023 and 8.7 so far this season. 

But as he said, Burnes has looked at ways to adjust to the hitters after they adjusted to him.

“It will be about sequencing a little better,” he said. “Instead of a guy fouling off three of four pitches with two strikes, just let him put it in play. Or do whatever you can do to end the at-bat in three or four pitches versus that six-or-seven-pitch range.

“I am happy with how my stuff looks. Happy how the ball is coming out. Maybe a tweak here or there in sequencing could get a few more strikeouts.”

Burnes might have a better won-loss record but for a lack of runs scored by the Orioles in some of his recent games. In his last four games – over which he has a 2.59 ERA but the team is 0-4 – the Orioles scored two, zero, zero and two runs. They have scored just one run in his last 26 innings on the mound.

Burnes is not worried about run support or strikeouts, though. He's focused on executing his plan and each individual pitch as he intends. That is his standard. 

“If I am up there executing pitches and getting outs and giving us a chance to win, I’m not going to complain," he said. "It's kind of the way offenses are going now. Strikeouts are trending the other direction. But if you start chasing strikeouts, you start making bad pitches and walking guys and get in trouble. The game tends to turn more selfish than being out there to help your team win." 

And sometimes if a hitter is just worried about putting a ball in play and he cuts down on his swing to do it, that can actually benefit the pitcher.

“Definitely,” said Burnes. “I think we have seen that. Instead of a guy up there with a man in scoring position, taking a big swing to put one in the gap, you see a weak ground ball to second base. For me as a pitcher, that’s a gift.

“I know that when I need a punchout, I can still get it in a big situation. I think that is what kind of matters the most.”

On another topic, we could see the Orioles at some point soon move to a six-man rotation or a modified six-man. They could keep Burnes on his usual schedule or pitch him in a six-man just as they could the other starters.

Burnes is OK with however this plays out, he said.

“My mind is always focused on health and keeping guys healthy," Burnes said. "What we did in my previous years is go to that when need be. We want to play our best ball in October. So if that means a six-man rotation is giving us a break and saving some innings for October, then I’m all for it. You want to make sure you are healthy and have your best team and guys going into the postseason. That can mean taking some breathers or a break earlier in the season.”

O's win big: Coming into Friday's series opener with the Orioles, Seattle was 20-12 since April 10, with a 2.63 team ERA. But the Orioles scored five runs in the first and four in the seventh in a 9-2 win over the Mariners to begin the weekend series.

The O's offense, which averaged 3.7 runs per game their last 14 games - which ranks 21st in the majors in that span - broke out with nine runs and 10 hits. Five of the hits went for extra bases.

Gunnar Henderson became the eighth Oriole with at least 13 homers in the team's first 42 games and first since Manny Machado in 2018.

Colton Cowser produced his fifth multi-RBI game and his first since April 16.

Jorge Mateo tripled to ignite Baltimore's four-run seventh, and 10 of his 18 hits have gone for extra bases.

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