MORAGA, Calif.—Coming off a summer in the Cape Cod League where he came out of the blue to become one of the most talked about prospects on the circuit, St. Mary's righthander Corbin Burnes planned to use the 2016 season to cement his status as one of the best pitching prospects in the country.
Instead, through three weeks of the season as St. Mary's prepared for a mid-March series with Utah, the junior carried an unsightly 3.91 ERA and had allowed 18 hits in just 16 innings. Coach Eric Valenzuela decided it was time to make an adjustment.
“In those first couple weeks, there were like 50 scouts behind home plate and (Burnes) was trying to throw fastballs by everybody and everything was elevated," Valenzuela said. “I told him I didn't care how hard he threw, that he was going to become a mix guy who could work off all of his pitches. Corbin totally bought into it and the results speak for themselves."
If anything, Valenzuela undersold how much of an impact the adjustment has made. In Burnes' next eight starts following that conversation, he allowed just six earned runs, 30 hits and 21 walks while racking up 57 strikeouts in 58 innings. His success has helped propel the Gaels (24-17) to first place in the West Coast Conference at the start of May, as they try to win the league and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. But it is the improved command of his changeup and slider that has scouts buzzing about Burnes' long-term upside as a starter at the next level and has cemented his status as a top pitching prospect on the West Coast.
While Jefferies and Quantrill generated buzz before they even stepped foot on college campuses, Burnes' journey has been a bit more circuitous. To say Burnes was lightly recruited coming out of Centennial High School in Bakersfield, Calif., would be overstating things. Burnes describes the level of interest in him as, “St. Mary's, one or two other Division I schools and a bunch of NAIA schools." Things were bleak enough that Burnes said he felt grateful that St. Mary's—a team returning just 19 players and coming off a 21-34 campaign in 2013—even gave him the opportunity to play.
On a team starved for depth and talent, Valenzuela, then in his first season at the helm, admitted to throwing Burnes “into the fire" and the numbers weren't pretty. He finished 0-4, 6.18 with 21 walks in 44 innings that season. In the interest of protecting his pitcher's confidence, Valenzuela sent Burnes to the Hamptons League in New York for summer ball. There, he knew Burnes could beat hitters with his velocity—now bumping 92-93 thanks to the rising sophomore's hard work in the gym—alone.
The move paid off as Burnes returned to campus armed with a live fastball and a renewed sense of confidence. He blossomed into a capable weekend starter for the Gaels, striking out 91 in 89 innings while walking 33. But his draft stock didn't truly explode until he replaced an injured teammate in Orleans last summer.
Valenzuela might have thought Burnes would be a capable fill-in, but even he admitted he couldn't have predicted the summer Burnes had. Armed with a fastball that was then regularly bumping 96, a sharp 84-85 mph slider and a developing changeup that he could throw to righties and lefties, Burnes flashed huge upside and struck out 28 in 38 innings en route to being named the No. 17 prospect on the Cape.
“When I first got there, the biggest thing was telling myself I belonged there," Burnes said. “That whole summer helped renew my confidence in a way, because I figured out that I belonged and could be out there with the best. And I tried to bring that confidence with me into this season as well."
The Cape also gave him the taste of the scouting hoopla that has followed him through every start in 2016. At this point, Burnes can't throw a pitch in a live game without at least 15 radar guns ready to record its velocity. Still, it's hard to blame big league teams for flocking when the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Burnes is touching 97 and complementing the fastball with potentially plus secondary pitches. The changeup has splitter action and is his second-best pitch according to Valenzuela. In practically the same breath, the coach countered that if he had to call for a 2-0 strike, he would probably call for the slider.
The diverse repertoire and more importantly, his ability to command all four pitches in it, is what sets him apart as a prospect. He has performed well this season, while some bigger names in the class have struggled. At the beginning of May, Burnes was 7-0, 1.57 and holding opponents to a .194 batting average. He had thrown two shutouts and posted a 77-to-15 stirkeout-to-walk ratio.
After the rocky start to the season, Burnes has learned to take the extra attention in stride and focus on the season. Of course it is easier to focus when the Gaels are having success, but Valenzuela says he and Burnes talk all the time about preparing for each day as if he was coming back for his senior season. Burnes seems to be paying attention.
“He is the talk of the town right now and you wouldn't know it by looking at him," Valenzuela said. “I've seen guys where the draft is all they can think about, and it really haunts them their junior year. He isn't like that, he just does his thing and looks like he couldn't be bothered by any of it."
Burnes deflects most of the credit for his focus onto Valenzuela who, Burnes noted, has experience in this department from when he coached Brian Mastusz (the No. 4 overall pick in 2008) at San Diego. It doesn't hurt that Burnes is probably the least surprised of anyone over his unexpected and rapid rise.
Asked if coming out of high school he could have ever imagined the success he is currently enjoying, he didn't hesitate. “I think with my work ethic? Yeah, it was definitely plausible," Burnes said before quickly adding, “but to this extent? Yeah, it is just a dream come true."