PHOENIX — In order to become the best pitcher in baseball, Corbin Burnes had to start making his bed.
The mundanity of the task is not lost on Burnes. Every fifth day, when Burnes steps on the pitcher’s mound for the Milwaukee Brewers, he revels in the excitement — the opportunity to throw the most effective cutter since Mariano Rivera, the challenge of filling the scoreboard with zeroes. All that excitement is the payoff of tedium: meticulously following a script for the preceding 120 hours, including five crisply tugged comforters.
In September 2019, when Burnes was toiling in Triple-A after his ERA in the majors ballooned to 9.00 and earned him a demotion, he connected with Brian Cain, a mental-performance coach who trained under the legendary Ken Ravizza. Burnes’ stuff still crackled. His mechanics were fine, his nutrition properly tuned, his right arm healthy. For all the time Burnes spent on the physical, he had neglected what he calls the most important body part of all: his brain.
So Cain started with a simple assignment for Burnes: When you wake up, make your bed. Start the day with an easy win. It was meant to help Burnes get into a routine. Emphasize self-discipline. Pay attention to detail. All the things necessary to succeed on the mound could be replicated off it, so that when it was time to perform there, it’s ingrained.
“It’s always going about your business as if there’s room to grow,” Burnes said, “but also going out there and when you step on the rubber knowing you’re the best in the league.”
It’s no stretch to suggest Burnes is the finest pitcher in baseball. Over the past three seasons, on the strength of a deadly cutter that reaches 98 mph, he has the highest strikeout rate among starters, the lowest opponent OPS and the most FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. In all of baseball history, only one other pitcher has a three-year period with at least 400 innings pitched, a sub-3.00 ERA, a sub-2.50 Fielding Independent Pitching, a sub-1.00 WHIP, an adjusted ERA 50% better than league average and a strikeout rate of at least 33.4%: Pedro Martinez from 1999-2001, one of the best stretches ever by a starter.
Unlike Martinez, who was already a regular atop Cy Young voting when he started the stretch, Burnes first had to overcome a historically bad performance. Reckoning with that failure drove him to Cain, who asked him a question in their first session: What do you want to achieve? Burnes’ answer was easy: get back to the big leagues. Cain suggested that was an improper goal.
The most effective improvements, Cain said, come from things people can control. Burnes couldn’t shape the Brewers’ roster moves. Nor could he direct hitters’ swings, umpires’ strike zones, teammates’ gloves and countless other factors that contribute directly to his performance. The only element Burnes could dictate was how he executed pitches.
They began with a success checklist that split the day into two halves. Wake up, make the bed, spend time with family, visualize on-field success, read the execution chapter from the seminal “The Mental ABCs of Pitching” by Harvey Dorfman and prepare to go to the field. That’s when the second half began. At the ballpark, the goal was to augment the raw stuff that led him to success in 2018 — when he debuted with a 7-0 record and 2.61 ERA in 30 games out of the bullpen — with a mental game to match. And repeat the entire process for the 120 hours between starts.
“An airplane does not take off until the mechanics and pilots go through a 250-point checklist,” Cain said. “Corbin has a checklist to go through to make sure his plane is ready to fly.”
Cain’s technique is well-practiced. He has worked with athletes across the sporting landscape, from MMA legend Georges St-Pierre to then-high school baseball standout Bobby Witt Jr. Cain always gravitated toward baseball players. He had flamed out as a college pitcher, and after he underwent shoulder surgery, he came across Ravizza’s “Heads-Up Baseball” at a bookstore in Boston. Soon thereafter, he emailed Ravizza, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, and inquired about joining the school’s master’s program.
There, he learned the tricks of the trade that he has put to use with Burnes and so many others. Cain gathers information for a mental-imagery session that follows the BALL technique. B is for breathing, a vital ability for players to calm themselves. A is for affirmation — in Burnes’ case, repeating to himself: “I carry myself with big body language and project confidence at all times.” The first L is to “look back” at his best performances. And the final L is “looking forward” to his next outing.
In the winter between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Burnes implemented the full suite of Cain’s teachings. He spent the COVID-delayed start to the 2020 season throwing off a turf mound into a backdrop with a nine-box strike zone, his wife, Brooke, calling balls and strikes — and hits, when Burnes didn’t execute his planned location. As much as he believed the techniques were helping, Burnes’ proof of concept was limited to his backyard, throwing to nonexistent hitters.
“I really had to buy in and be like, look, these make you feel good when you’re comfortable on your turf mound in the backyard,” Burnes said. “You just have to trust it’s going to translate when you get into camp.”
It did. In the shortened 2020 season, Burnes struck out 88 and allowed just two home runs in 59⅔ innings. He returned even better in 2021, punching out 234 and walking 34 in 167 innings. He K’d a major league-record 58 hitters before allowing his first walk. With a league-leading 2.43 ERA, Burnes won the National League Cy Young Award.
“It’s not a light switch that clicked on,” Cain said. “It’s a dimmer switch that comes and goes. What makes Corbin beautiful is he realizes what he has to do. He’s constantly turning that dimmer switch on. It’s just continuously clicking.”
Burnes’ ability to master the finer parts of his craft is particularly impressive considering he didn’t begin pitching until his senior year in high school. He uses concentration grids, a favorite of Hall of Famer Roy Halladay, which encourage focus and spatial awareness. Following every start, he journals about how well he executed his pitches. In it, statistics like runs allowed and strikeouts are immaterial; Burnes judges himself in binary fashion — did or didn’t he execute a pitch as intended? He follows the Well/Better/How skill of reflection: What did Burnes do well, what can he do better and how can he do it? Because starting pitchers particularly understand the discipline needed to bridge that time between outings and transition from those 120 hours to the intensity the pitcher’s mound requires.
“You get more mentally worn out than you do physically,” Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff said. “Every day, there’s a task I have to do preparing for hitters. If it’s going to play catch that day, I work, I got something to do and I gotta focus on something. At the end of the day, if you go into an outing and you execute pitches, it doesn’t matter what you’ve looked at. But [whether or not it helps] me out on the mound, I’ve got that in the back of my mind that I’ve done my homework.”
Even when statistics don’t reflect execution, Burnes takes solace in what the numbers tell him. His pitches last year were in the strike zone only 42.9% of the time, 7% below the league average, but he generated 45% more swinging strikes than the average starter. Everything suggests what he’s doing works. So when he’s on the mound this spring, he’ll do what he always does to ensure he’s in the right place mentally to execute: take a breath, look at the wire above the plate as a focal point and finish the sequence with a physical reset, either by swiping at the pitcher’s mound or hitting the cleat cleaner behind it.
It’s all part of the strength-and-conditioning program — for his mind.
“When I look back, it’s like, yeah, I had no chance to continue pitching the way I wanted to pitch in that rotation,” Burnes said. “I needed to go to Triple-A, really learn from it to get to where I am today. Everyone’s a completely different pitcher early on in their careers than they are in the later years. But I think me, more so than anyone, I needed to learn how to make those adjustments in-game.”