In 2019, Corbin Burnes had an 8.82 E.R.A. In 2020, Robbie Ray had a 6.62 E.R.A. and was traded in what amounted to a salary dump. On Wednesday, both pitchers proved that great stuff and a solid work ethic can win out eventually, as they were named the Cy Young Award winners for their leagues.
The transformation of both pitchers was equal parts shocking, based on how low their careers had sunk, and understandable when you consider their track records for overpowering batters. Through hard work, they figured things out, and batters paid a heavy price.
Burnes, 27, followed his breakout 2020 season by starting 2021 with a streak of 58 strikeouts without a walk, joining Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta in a Milwaukee Brewers rotation that effectively had three aces. That dominance continued as Burnes led the majors in E.R.A. (2.43) and strikeouts per nine innings (12.6). He received 12 of 30 first-place votes, beating out his fellow finalists: Zack Wheeler of the Philadelphia Phillies, who also received 12 first-place votes, and Max Scherzer of the Nationals and Dodgers, who received six. Burnes triumphed over Wheeler by way of 14 second-place votes to Wheeler’s nine.
Ray, 30, stepped up as a left-handed ace for the Toronto Blue Jays, leading the American League in E.R.A. (2.84) and innings pitched (193⅓). Fashioning himself into a power lefty in the mold of Randy Johnson, who had served as a mentor for Ray in Arizona, he led the majors in strikeouts (248). That led to his receiving 29 of 30 first-place votes, beating out his fellow finalists: Gerrit Cole of the Yankees, who received the remaining first-place vote and 29 second-place votes, and Lance Lynn of the Chicago White Sox, who received 11 third-place votes.
The awards are presented annually by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
For the two award winners, finding stardom meant examining what was working and what wasn’t.
“The biggest thing that I’ve done this off-season is the mind-set,” Burnes said in May. “It could be 3-0, I really don’t care — for me it’s 0-0, it’s 0-1, it’s 0-2, I’m attacking. In pitcher’s counts, I’m going at hitters. There’s no, ‘Oh, I’m behind here 2-0, 3-0, this guy’s a good fastball hitter’ — no. As soon as you fall into that trap, you’re done.”
The seeds of Ray’s transformation were planted in 2017 when he received some advice from Johnson about believing in his ability.
“He sat down in my locker and it was basically like a big brother who gets you in a headlock, like: ‘You better figure this out, because you never know when your last pitch is going to be,’” Ray said in September. “And I took that to heart. I ended up rattling off a 26⅔-inning scoreless streak, went to a sub-three E.R.A. and kind of ran with it.”
Burnes is a homegrown star for Milwaukee after being selected in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. He has struggled with durability issues, often knocking himself out of games with high pitch counts, but his disastrous 2019 season seems like an aberration. His worst E.R.A. in any other season was the 2.61 he had in 38 innings as a reliever in 2018. While he should receive a sizable raise in his first year of salary arbitration, he is under team control until 2025.
He took the loss in this year’s All-Star Game, allowing two runs in two innings, but Burnes more than made up for it by teaming with reliever Josh Hader for a no-hitter in September and pitching six shutout innings in a division series start against Atlanta.
For Ray, a change of scenery was crucial in addition to the advice he got from Johnson. He had shown an ability to pile up strikeouts, and he was an All-Star in 2017, but the Diamondbacks grew frustrated with his inability to keep the ball in the strike zone. He had a 7.84 E.R.A. in seven starts for Arizona in 2020 ahead of a trade in which he was sent, with cash, to Toronto for pitcher Travis Bergen. Bergen was brought back to the Blue Jays for cash a few months later, meaning the Blue Jays essentially got Ray for free.
That good fortune could be expensive going forward, however, as Ray is a free agent and expected to command a massive increase from his $8 million salary in 2021.
The other finalists had plenty to speak for them, even if they came up short in the voting.
Scherzer, who, like Ray, is a free agent, was good for Washington but absolutely electric after a midseason trade to Los Angeles, with a 1.98 E.R.A. in 12 regular-season starts. (The Dodgers won every game he started.) Wheeler, who had struggled to stay healthy in his time with the Mets, led the majors with 213⅓ innings pitched and led the National League with 247 strikeouts.
Lynn was an All-Star for the second time and had a career-best E.R.A. of 2.69. Cole, who inadvertently became the face of the sport’s ball-doctoring crisis, struggled down the stretch — a slide some have attributed to a hamstring injury rather than the sticky substance ban — but still finished with a 3.23 E.R.A. and led the A.L. in strikeout-to-walk ratio. This was Cole’s fourth consecutive season finishing in the top five in his league’s Cy Young voting, but he has yet to win the award.
Tyler Kepner contributed reporting.