The making of an ace: How Orioles’ Corbin Burnes became one of MLB’s best pitchers

SARASOTA, Fla. — No one knew Corbin Burnes was going to become one of the best pitchers on the planet when they first saw him play.

“No way,” his high school coach said.

“I wouldn’t have taken that bet,” one of his college summer coaches said.

A decade before he won the National League Cy Young Award, Burnes was an undersized second baseman playing high school baseball in California. He posted a 6.18 ERA as a freshman at a small Division I school. He earned his spot in the Cape Cod Baseball League by happenstance. His first attempt at being a big league starter was disastrous.

Burnes was never destined to be an ace. That fact is why he became one.

The 29-year-old joins the Orioles this season with sky-high expectations of headlining Baltimore’s rotation as the young ballclub looks to become World Series contenders, hoping the right arm of Burnes can lead the way to the promised land.

The Orioles’ blockbuster trade to acquire Burnes from the Milwaukee Brewers was one of the most significant offseason moves in franchise history. An ace atop the rotation was Baltimore’s biggest need — a luxury the club hasn’t enjoyed since Mike Mussina at the turn of the century.

Next week, when Burnes takes the mound at Camden Yards on opening day, he will have with him the lessons and trials that shaped him into an ace. The coaches who witnessed that transformation believe he will be that and more for the Orioles in 2024.

“He’s just a winner,” his college coach said. “He has that leadership, that drive, that determination. It’s not a coincidence that wherever he goes, they win.”

Humble beginnings

When Burnes went to Division I Saint Mary’s College of California, his high school coach, Randy Roberts, would text him after every start — a tradition the 70-year-old still maintains.

At first, he would text Burnes pointers or reminders like any good coach would. Then, as Burnes advanced to a level far past Centennial High School in Bakersfield, Calif., Roberts just sent encouraging words to his former player: “Keep it up,” or “Great job,” or “You really stuck it to ‘em.”

Still to this day, Burnes always responds to his high school coach whom he hasn’t played for in more than a decade — sometimes within minutes of walking off the mound. Roberts isn’t the only one. Kelly Nicholson, the pitcher’s manager for one summer in the Cape Cod League, remains in touch with Burnes, who never fails to respond when the 64-year-old reaches out.

“He doesn’t look at himself that way,” Nicholson said, noting how Burnes is busy and famous enough to get away with not responding to simple text messages. “He’s so respectful. He’s super humble.”

As a high school sophomore, Burnes made the varsity team as a middle infielder, not a pitcher. He wasn’t in Roberts’ opening day lineup, but he started the next day, went 3 for 4 with several highlight defensive plays and never looked back.

“He was a little second baseman, and when I say little, I mean little,” Roberts said. “But I couldn’t pull him out of the lineup after that. He grabbed it and stayed in there.”

After missing most of his junior season with an injury, Burnes didn’t begin pitching in earnest until his senior year. As he grew and gained velocity, it became clear that Division I scouts were coming to see his lively arm on the mound more than his swing at the plate or glove at shortstop.

The realization, Roberts said, that Burnes’ future was on the mound and not in the batter’s box was difficult for the youngster.

“It broke his heart,” he said. “But it turned out to be something great for him.”

In a way, that conversation feels like a lifetime ago. But to Roberts, like all coaches who witness their players grow up, he watches the 6-foot-3, 225-pound All-Star and sees the scrappy, 5-5, 130-pound second baseman fighting for a chance.

“Now he’s a man, but I still see little Corby. We just don’t call him Corby anymore,” Roberts said with a laugh.

Learning to fight

After Saint Mary’s recorded a shutout, the team’s pitchers were allowed to take batting practice — a common college baseball tradition. Burnes was quick to remind Eric Valenzuela, the Gaels’ coach, of his high self-esteem at the plate.

“He’d look over and say, ‘Hey, I can still do it,” Valenzuela recalls. “I can hit.”

As a freshman, Burnes didn’t get to show off his swing too often as the Gaels, one of the West Coast Conference’s worst teams with just two winning seasons in the previous 22 years, went 16-39. The right-hander was 0-4 and allowed 75 base runners in 43 2/3 innings as mostly a reliever.

In hindsight, the team’s futility was a good thing for Burnes, Valenzuela said, as it allowed him to get experience he might not have received on a better team.

“He got thrown into the fire,” the coach said. “He got punched in the chin and was able to respond and crawl out of it and learn from it.”

Valenzuela, who still coaches at Saint Mary’s, puts his players through a boxing workout a few times each fall — an unconventional method meant to teach mental and physical toughness. Back then, his players would even spar in one-minute rounds against each other. When Burnes dominates big league hitters as he did in 2021 — when he racked up 58 strikeouts to begin the season without issuing a walk, or when he struck out 10 straight Chicago Cubs batters to tie a major league record — Valenzuela is reminded of seeing Burnes grow from a boy into a man during his three years at Saint Mary’s.

“He’s such a nice person, a good kid,” he said. “But giving him that edge, getting that animal out of him a little bit on the mound — I think that’s what he got here.”

After a solid sophomore campaign, Burnes received his big break. His teammate Cameron Neff had a spot in the Cape — viewed as the premier summer league for college talent — but he couldn’t go because he was shut down earlier that season. Valenzuela put up Burnes as Neff’s replacement to play for Nicholson, the longtime skipper of the Orleans Firebirds.

Burnes didn’t dominate the Cape, but he more than held his own against the best college hitters in the country, recording a 3.79 ERA. In just two months in Massachusetts that summer, Burnes proved to professional scouts — and himself — that he belonged.

“It opened eyes,” Nicholson said. “When you have a good summer like Corbin did, you go back knowing you can compete against anyone in the country.”

That summer was the end of Burnes’ underdog story.

His stellar junior season — 8-2 with a 2.48 ERA to lead the Gaels to their first conference title in program history — made him a legitimate prospect for the 2016 MLB draft. He went from throwing high-80s mph as a freshman to mid-90s and touching 97 mph as a junior, a product of gaining about 5 inches of height and sharpening his mechanics throughout his college career. He was one strike away from a no-hitter against the University of San Diego and struck out eight against soon-to-be College World Series champion Coastal Carolina in the NCAA regionals.

The Brewers selected him in the fourth round, and it took him just two years to make his MLB debut as he dominated the minor leagues. It seemed as if his big league career would be smooth sailing, too. He went 7-0 with a 2.61 ERA as a reliever to end the 2018 season.

Then he faced a harsh reality in 2019.

“I was mentally tough enough to get to the big leagues,” Burnes said, “but not stay in the big leagues.”

A new mindset

The most important part of Burnes’ day is when he makes his bed in the morning. That’s because it’s the first thing he does.

That was one of the first changes Burnes implemented after he began to rewire his brain near the end of the 2019 season. Entering the year, he was a top 100 prospect expected to take the next step as a major league starter, but he got lit up early — 11 home runs and a 10.70 ERA in four starts — and couldn’t climb his way out of the quicksand. He bounced between the majors and Triple-A, where he had an 8.46 ERA, and was sent to the Brewers’ pitching lab in August to figure out what was wrong.

But the problem wasn’t physical. His stuff was the same as in 2018. His mechanics were mostly clean. His diet and exercise regimen were strong.

“I was struggling,” Burnes said. “I was open to trying anything.”

Burnes’ agent at the time put him in contact with Brian Cain, a mental performance coach who trained under world-renowned sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, to help get the pitcher back on track. They set routines, worked through a mental training program used by Navy SEALs and framed his mind to focus solely on what he can control. More than four years later, Burnes still works with Cain and speaks with him on the phone to go over every start.

The simple act of making his bed sets Burnes on the right path — “starting his day with a win,” Cain said. It’s the first on a long checklist for his morning routine, which includes brushing his teeth, eating breakfast, reading “The Daily Stoic” philosophy book and listening to “The Daily Dad” podcast while drinking coffee. Then he spends the rest of his morning with his son — “dad time, the most fun part of the day” — before going to work, changing into his uniform and going from “dad mode to baseball mode.”

At the field, Burnes has detailed routines for his pregame schedule, catch play, bullpens and workouts. Before every batter, he stands behind the rubber, looks at the wire atop the netting and takes a deep breath. He journals about each start, calculating the percentage of his pitches that he executed regardless of the result. At night, he goes through a meditation routine before falling asleep. Then he wakes up, makes his bed and does it all over again.

“He has 120 hours between starts,” said Cain, who has also worked with Cy Young Award winners David Price, Jake Arrieta and Trevor Bauer, UFC legend Georges St-Pierre and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray. “We have detailed where every one of those hours go; there’s no guesswork. And it works.”

Once Burnes focused on his process, the results quickly followed. He dominated during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, striking out 88 batters in 59 2/3 innings. In 2021, he posted one of the best seasons from a starting pitcher this century with a 2.43 ERA, 0.940 WHIP and mind-boggling 6.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio en route to winning the NL Cy Young Award. He’s finished in the top eight of the award’s voting in four straight seasons. In that span, no pitcher in the majors with more than 500 innings has an ERA better than Burnes’ 2.86 across his 622 1/3 frames.

Burnes letting go of the results and becoming process-oriented wasn’t just a mental change. He stopped trying to be something he wasn’t — a four-seam pitcher with carry — and leaned into the way he naturally threw the baseball. He turned his four-seam fastball with a small cut into a full-blown cutter — one of the best in baseball at 94.4 mph that he now throws 55.4% of the time.

“That first punch in the face at the major league level can be overwhelming,” Brewers pitching coach Chris Hook said. “But with Corbin, there was the character of the kid that you knew was going to shine through.”

When Burnes wakes up March 28 as the Orioles’ opening day starter, he won’t be worrying about the 45,000 fans at Camden Yards and the pressure of performing for them. He’s just going to make his bed.

“Maybe it’s the right way to do it, maybe it’s not,” Burnes said of his regimented way of life. “But I know at the end of my day, my season, my career, I did everything I could.”

Ace in the hole

Drew French couldn’t sleep the night he found out.

His phone was “blowing up” with texts from friends and family — celebratory GIFs and pictures of playing cards depicting aces.

In his first season as Baltimore’s pitching coach, French will be helping guide perhaps one of the best 10 pitchers to ever wear an Orioles uniform.

“The possibilities are endless,” French said. “He is everything that you would expect out of a No. 1 pitcher.”

French wasn’t the only one. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, who executed the trade by sending top 100 prospects DL Hall and Joey Ortiz to the Brewers, said Burnes “changes the whole complexion of our team.” Manager Brandon Hyde recalled how Burnes threw eight shutout innings against his Orioles last year, touting his “impressive” arsenal.

When Burnes was traded, Danny Coulombe was the only player on the Orioles’ 40-man roster who once shared a uniform with the right-hander. Coulombe spent part of his 2019 season in Triple-A with the Brewers and witnessed a portion of the most challenging year of Burnes’ career. Even then, Coulombe recognized the potential his teammate possessed.

“He was working through a lot that year,” Coulombe said. “But we knew how good he was.”

James McCann, more than anyone else in the Orioles’ clubhouse, knows how a Cy Young Award winner is supposed to act. The backup catcher has worked with six pitchers who have won the award at some point in their career — a number that will grow in 2024 when McCann first catches Burnes.

“There’s a lot of similarities to other Cy Young-caliber pitchers that I’ve caught,” McCann said. “His attention to detail and his knowledge of what he does well and what he has to do to have success is top-notch.”

Despite his excitement, Elias doesn’t want to put more on Burnes’ plate than already exists.

“The weight of the world is not on his shoulders,” Elias said.

However, Burnes isn’t scared of the pressure he will face this year — pitching for a new team, in a different division and in a contract year with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on the line. To him, as Cain would say, “pressure is a privilege.” And just as he did when he first cracked the varsity lineup in high school or when he got a late invitation to the Cape or when the Brewers gave him another shot in 2020, Burnes isn’t hiding from a challenge.

“If you give me the chance,” Burnes said, “I’m going to run with it.”