SARASOTA, Fla. — All eyes turned to the man on the mound, the newcomer whose reputation preceded him. They gathered around the backstop along Field 4 at the Orioles’ spring training complex and stood, fingers gripping the chain-link, getting their first look at Corbin Burnes.

This was a mid-February morning, with six weeks remaining until the Orioles head north for opening day. This was Burnes’ first live session against his Baltimore teammates since the organization secured a trade for the talented right-hander at the beginning of the month.

The attention on three at-bats illustrated the anticipation, intrigue and expectations that will follow Burnes’ every move on the mound. There was Burnes’ cutter, dancing at mid-90s velocity on both edges of the plate. He pulled out his changeup to play off the fastball, his slider fell away from right-handed hitters, his looping curveball tantalized bats.

There was also a mystery pitch, the one that Cedric Mullins swung through for strike three. The Orioles outfielder cocked his head, then inquired about it to Baltimore’s analytics staff, who recorded the session. What was that?

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“That looked like a slider,” Mullins said in the clubhouse later. “As a hitter, I saw the movement, and I was like, ‘Maybe slider?’ ”


That was Burnes’ newest offering, a second curveball that he will use primarily in strikeout situations. Compared to his traditional 12-6 curveball — a 78 mph to 80 mph offering that starts high and drops straight along the digits of a clock — Burnes’ latest curveball leaves his hand about 5 mph faster. It will still travel roughly north-to-south, but it has more bite, and to a left-handed batter, it will plunge out of the strike zone toward their back foot.

“Having that versatility in his pitches, working on a new curveball — I got to see the best one, possibly — it’s exciting,” Mullins said.

It’s exciting to be on this side of it, that is. Mullins knows he won’t have to find a way to hit that pitch unless he’s standing on the back fields during spring training. For the rest of the league, it may well be another piece of a deadly arsenal.

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Burnes lived up to the billing in his first live session against Mullins, Adley Rutschman and Ryan O’Hearn. It’s why a throng of his new teammates gathered around the fence to watch.

He is a former Cy Young Award winner — an honor given to the best pitcher in baseball — and he has finished in the top eight of voting in each of his last four seasons. He has earned All-Star nominations each of the last three years. He is, to many in the clubhouse, a signal of Baltimore’s renewed push toward a championship.

“Everyone knows we had a good team last year, and the front office is trying to improve on that, which shows the intent — we’re trying to win,” O’Hearn said. “Adding a guy like him, with his pedigree and the career he’s had, it’s pretty encouraging and cool to be a part of, for me.”

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Before O’Hearn stood in against Burnes over the weekend in Sarasota, the first baseman had faced Burnes five times. He struck out in four of those plate appearances and never recorded a hit.

What makes Burnes so difficult, O’Hearn mused, is multi-fold. The 29-year-old hurler ranked in the 73rd percentile last season in fastball velocity (averaging 95.3 mph), but the movement on that pitch makes it so much more distinctive than traditional fastballs. Burnes’ cutter has a tendency to sneak back onto the plate.

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“If you think it’s a ball outside, you’ve got to go anyway, because it’s going to come back,” O’Hearn said of the late run on the pitch that carries it into the strike zone. “He has that backdoor cutter mastered. Everything’s just late and sharp and gets on you.”

“And then the slider, the curveball,” O’Hearn continued, his voice trailing off as he tried to keep track of all the ways Burnes can make a batter look foolish. “His spin’s really good, too. He’s got all the pitches. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

On this occasion, O’Hearn got the best of Burnes. Burnes threw him a cutter and a changeup, then wanted to jam O’Hearn with another cutter under the hands inside. Instead, Burnes left it just enough over the zone to allow O’Hearn to inside-out the pitch into left field for a hit.

The other two at-bats, though, went in Burnes’ favor. Rutschman swung through a high heater before popping up to center field on a looping curveball that may have been a tick below the zone. And Mullins swung through strike three.

Burnes faced three of Baltimore’s best hitters and left them raving about his command, velocity and spin.

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“You kind of set your sights, for the most part, on every other pitcher, like, a little on the inside of the edge of the plate, and anything outside that you’re not really swinging at,” Rutschman said. “But for him, you have to extend your sights out even further. And then, because you’re setting your sights out further, you see a pitch that starts on the middle-in half of the plate, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a good one to hit,’ and then it goes off the plate on the other side. It’s just tough, because it’s coming in at 95, 96, too. So not a lot of reaction time. There’s really good movement. And he’s changing your eyesight.”

Corbin Burnes prepares to face batters during the Baltimore Orioles spring training on Saturday, February 17.
Corbin Burnes prepares to face batters during the Baltimore Orioles spring training on Saturday, Feb. 17. (Paul Mancano/The Baltimore Banner)

Burnes wasn’t happy with his slider last year. He has been throwing it the same way for much of his career — in the high 80′s, with about seven inches of horizontal break — but Burnes was frank in his evaluation of it: “The slider sucked.”

Perhaps it did by his lofty standards. In April, May and June combined, batters hit a paltry .229 against the offering. Still, he changed it into a sweeper, sacrificing velocity for more horizontal movement, giving himself a patch-over solution against right-handed batters. He learned it in about a day, then said, “Screw it,” brought it into a midseason start and found a way to get outs with it.

“It’s not a pitch that meshes super well with how I throw, but I needed something last year that would keep guys off balance,” Burnes said.

But the sweeper won’t be part of his repertoire this season — at least, not by intention. Burnes spent much of his offseason rediscovering his traditional slider, and he feels he has resurrected the pitch. In a pinch, he can reintroduce a sweeper, but his focus instead was on adding the second curveball.

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The inspiration came from conversations with veteran hitters throughout the years. Burnes has learned there are some counts in which he can “steal strikes with off-speed pitches, when guys are geared up, dead-red for a fastball.”

His traditional, slower curveball is ideal for those situations. He can drop it in the zone with ease, and should a batter swing, the almost 20-mph variation from his fastball to his slower curveball will leave them off balance. Then there’s his harder curveball — the “punch-out curveball,” Burnes called it — “which is essentially just a curveball with two strikes you’re trying to get a swing and miss with.”

Mullins was one of the first to see it, and his bat flailed unsuccessfully past the mid-80s bender.

Even two days later, Mullins still had to smile at the deceptiveness of the pitch. The catcher, James McCann, marveled as it struck his glove — and long after. O’Hearn felt glad he wouldn’t have to face Burnes in a game anymore. Rutschman looked forward to tinkering with game plans, learning from Burnes and setting opposing batters up for a similar form of bemusement against Baltimore’s new ace.

“He has a weapon for every situation, and he commands it,” McCann said. “That’s a special ability. I’d much rather catch it than try to hit off it.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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