SARASOTA, Fla. — Corbin Burnes licked his fingers, then fiddled with the baseball, working the seams. His right foot dug into the dirt just ahead of the rubber. He signaled which pitch he’d throw — this time a slider — and unleashed it toward catcher James McCann’s target.


Then Burnes caught the return throw, licked his fingers and fiddled with the ball. He did the same thing each time, a well-worn routine for the right-hander that is nonetheless novel for his new Orioles teammates.

Left-hander Cole Irvin watched, noting the care with which Burnes threw each pitch on this side mound tucked away on the back fields at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. Catcher Adley Rutschman noticed how detail-oriented Burnes was in their first meeting, then watched it play out from 60 feet, 6 inches. McCann, behind the plate, occasionally received corrections from Burnes on where to set up his body or glove.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“It makes my life easier,” McCann said. “Just do what he wants.”

In the echelon of baseball activities, the bullpen session can be one of the most formulaic. So perhaps it’s those bullpen sessions at which Burnes’ teammates notice his precision the most — those early spring training days when games of any consequence are a month or more away. They’re on a back field in Florida, away from the bright lights of a Major League Baseball stadium, and yet every pitch matters just the same to Burnes.

“He’s striving for perfection, right?” Irvin said. There’s no room for wasted pitches on that path.

In Burnes’ rise to prominence in the major leagues, perfection is an ever-elusive target. No pitcher is immune to a missed spot or a run on the board. But Burnes has found a routine that works for him, beginning when he deliberately makes his bed in the morning. That’s step one.

His routine has brought the 29-year-old to the upper reaches of the game. He’s a Cy Young Award winner — given out every season to the best pitcher in each league — and has finished in the top eight of voting each of the last four years. He’s a three-time All-Star who could conceivably surpass 1,000 career strikeouts this season.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

As such, he recognizes the responsibility that rests upon his shoulders.

“If I can go out there and make 30-plus starts in the regular season and eat up as many of those innings as I can,” Burnes said. “It’s going to put us all in a better spot.”

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Corbin Burnes (39) speaks with catcher Adley Rutschman after throwing during a spring training session on Feb. 22. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Through working with Brian Cain, Burnes’ mental performance coach, Burnes has a daily checklist. Each time Burnes checks off another item on the list — making his bed, for instance — Cain gets a notification. Burnes journals, he watches film, he closes his eyes to visualize his outing. It’s all part of the routine.

“What motivates him? Two things: excellence and execution,” Cain said. “Excellence being, how can I get the absolute most out of my career? And in order to do that, I just have to get the best out of today.”

His teammates watched Burnes get the best out of each day throughout the spring, and they soaked in Burnes’ stunning 11-strikeout performance on opening day in Baltimore last week. He’s here because general manager Mike Elias snapped up Burnes from the Milwaukee Brewers in a major offseason trade to firm up Baltimore’s rotation with an undisputed ace at the top of it.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

What he brings is experience and guile and competitiveness. Innings and strikeouts and wins.

And routine.

“Because he’s so detail-oriented,” Rutschman said, “we have a really good idea of what we’re doing. And then we go out there and execute.”

So Burnes licks his fingers and fiddles with the baseball, working the seams. He’s in a new uniform, but nothing else has changed.

An unexpected rise

Corbin Burnes had large aspirations during his sophomore year at the Saint Mary’s College of California — just check his LinkedIn profile.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“I am pursuing a career in the medical field as either a Physical Therapist or Orthopedic Surgeon,” the young Burnes wrote. He noted his experience as a security guard at Oakland Raiders games. He listed his volunteering at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility in California.

“My experience with a team on the baseball field, dedication in the classroom, and volunteer work has aided me in being reliable, hard-working, and disciplined,” Burnes wrote.

At that time, he might not have guessed that his reliable, hard-working and disciplined nature would so perfectly transfer into becoming an ace in the major leagues.

He was a good — not great — starting pitcher in the West Coast Conference. He stepped into a major role as a freshman in 2014 and took plenty of lumps, an expected outcome for Eric Valenzuela, who in his first year as coach at St. Mary’s inherited just 19 players.

“I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to throw you guys into the fire. You guys are the future of this program,’ ” Valenzuela told Burnes and fellow freshman hurler Cameron Neff. “Regardless of whether you’re ready or not, we’re going to throw you in there and you’re going to have to figure it out. We’ll do this thing together.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

That first year, Valenzuela didn’t want Burnes to become disheartened by his ERA, which ended the season at 6.18. The up-and-down results served as a learning tool for Burnes, a rapid education in how to improve as a pitcher — a position he only began playing in earnest as a senior in high school.

Burnes would develop quickly, though. He gained velocity on his fastball and bite to his off-speed pitches. He also gained confidence, stemming from a summer spent in New York in the Hamptons Summer Collegiate League. But Burnes’ next leap forward came one summer later, when he took the place of Neff in the Cape Cod League in 2015.

Neff was taxed after a long year for St. Mary’s, and Valenzuela wanted him to rest his arm rather than risk injury. It was a late change, leaving little time for the Cape Cod League to find a replacement.

“Well, I have kid named Corbin Burnes,” Valenzuela offered.

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Corbin Burnes (39) delivers a pitch against the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Day at Camden Yards on Thursday, March 28, 2024. The Baltimore Orioles won their first game of the season, 11-3, against the Angels.
Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Corbin Burnes (39) delivers a pitch against the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Day at Camden Yards on Thursday, March 28, 2024. The Baltimore Orioles won their first game of the season, 11-3, against the Angels. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Burnes attracted the notice of scouts during that summer in the Cape. As one of the premier wood-bat leagues for amateurs, it’s often a measuring stick of how a player could translate to professional ball. Burnes earned a place on the league’s All-Star squad for his 3.79 ERA in 38 innings against some of the best college hitters in the country.

When Burnes returned to St. Mary’s in the fall for his junior season, he looked different on the mound. Anthony Villa, his teammate at St. Mary’s and Baltimore’s director of player development, saw Burnes turn into a “beast.”

“He’s gotten way more physical, he’s throwing harder, he’s continuing to develop his pitch-ability, and he was truly an ace for us his junior year,” Villa remembered. “And you started to see the potential.”

He saw it first-hand. Villa stepped into the box that fall during an intrasquad matchup. Even during the preseason, major league scouts were littered throughout the stands. “The magnitude of the at-bats felt a lot bigger,” Villa recalled.

He geared up early for a fastball, knowing that it would groove in between 94 mph and 96 mph. And when it came, Villa made sweet contact — loud contact. The ball flew long and deep and … foul. He pulled it too much.

“That’s the closest I came to having any success off of him,” Villa said, although it was still closer than many hitters managed. Burnes struck him out later in the plate appearance. And by the spring, Burnes solidified himself as a prospect with a 2.48 ERA in 101⅔ innings. It was his launching pad into professional ball.

“That’s when reality set in, like, ‘Whoa, I may have a future in this thing,’ ” Valenzuela recalled.

The Brewers selected Burnes in the fourth round of the 2016 MLB draft. Burnes, it turns out, wouldn’t be needing that LinkedIn profile.

Necessary changes

The league figured out Corbin Burnes.

MARYVALE, AZ - FEB. 22: Corbin Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers poses for a portrait during Photo Day in 2018. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images) (Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

It was 2019, one year after he made his major league debut. And in 49 innings for the Brewers, mostly in relief, Burnes held an 8.46 ERA and was sent to the minors.

There needed to be a change, on multiple fronts.

In August 2019, one side of the equation began to be addressed when Burnes met with Cain in Arizona. Cain has worked with Cy Young winners before (David Price, Jake Arrieta), and knew the attention to minute details that plays a role in the mosaic of a stellar season.

“It didn’t seem like Corbin was at the level that he should be with the detail of his process,” Cain said. “No fault of his own. The process is something that gets coached. The process is something that gets taught. The mental game is not something that you just go figure out on your own, although a lot of people approach it that way.”

There are roughly 120 hours between the time Burnes steps off the mound following one start to when he will step back onto the mound for his next. Those 120 hours are full of potential, and Burnes and Cain worked to orchestrate a routine that is now practically second nature.

Burnes has three journals: An execution journal he fills out after he throws; there’s a success check list, which includes making his bed; and there’s a daily journal that helps Burnes flip a switch from dad to ace and back again at the beginning and end of workdays.

“It makes it easier for when I get on the mound to know I’m prepared for every situation that can come up,” Burnes said. “The visualizations and stuff I do, of seeing pitches hundreds and thousands of times before I go do it on the mound, doesn’t make it feel foreign when you’re up there and allows me to relax.”

Cain said: “At the major league level, confidence comes from preparation.”

It can also come from results, which Burnes found again in 2020 and ever since. If adjusting the mental aspect of his game was one major change Burnes needed to make, his arsenal is the other half.

MILWAUKEE, WI - APRIL 15: Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell (30) presents Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Corbin Burnes (39) the 2021 Cy Young Award. (Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Gone was his four-seam fastball. It naturally had cut to it, but the offering wasn’t deceptive enough to fool major league hitters, even at 95.2 mph on average. Batters hit .425 against Burnes’ four-seamer in 2019 with 13 homers.

In its place, Burnes introduced a cutter. In 2019, Burnes’ four-seamer averaged two inches of horizontal break. His cutter in 2020 moved an average of 4.3 inches to the glove side — an increase that, when coupled with similar velocity, changed Burnes’ effectiveness.

Burnes’ cutter is now his most common pitch, one he threw 55.4% of the time last year. According to Statcast, no pitcher had a better cutter last season than Burnes. That pitch was also a major part of his 2021 Cy Young campaign, when he led the majors with a 2.43 ERA.

But Burnes didn’t stop there. When his slider gave him trouble last season, Burnes implemented a quick fix by adjusting the pitch into a sweeper. He took some velocity away in favor of more break, and it helped Burnes power through a 2023 season that finished with a comparatively high 3.39 ERA — still among the best in baseball, yet elevated from his more recent heights.

“It wasn’t the best me out there, is kind of the easy way to put it,” Burnes said. “Basically, what I learned from previous years to that point is that as long as I go out there and I compete, I can still get outs in this league. I proved that in the second half last year, even without my best stuff, I was able to still go out there and bear down.”

And in spring training this year, Burnes entered with a new pitch in mind: a second, harder curveball. Unlike his usual 12-6 offering, this one is faster and dives toward a left-handed batter’s back foot.

No matter how established Burnes becomes in the majors, he’s always searching for a way to improve.

“He’s continued to refine his arsenal and his game and grow every year,” Villa said.

The Orioles get their ace

Outfielder Cedric Mullins was in Baltimore at a fan event, signing autographs, when a notification on his phone drew his attention.

Like much of the fanbase, Baltimore’s players had expected a move of this nature all winter. The Orioles had a loaded farm system and an apparent need for an ace. It just made sense.

On Mullins’ screen, he saw the news: Burnes was coming to the Orioles.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Well, there it is,’ ” Mullins said. “It was a highly anticipated move.”

To Mullins and others, the addition of Burnes signaled something else, too. When the Orioles suffered a three-game sweep in the American League Division Series to the Texas Rangers, their inexperienced starting rotation faltered. Burnes’ addition seems to be a stabilizer and could pay dividends in the biggest games.

Baltimore Orioles starting pitchers Corbin Burnes (39), left, and Dean Kremer (64) walk off the field during a spring training practice on Feb. 20. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

It can also galvanize the rest of a pitching staff to raise their performances.

“Coming up in Detroit, you had [Justin] Verlander and [Max] Scherzer,” McCann said. “You could never come out and say it, but they’re competing with each other. Guy goes seven innings and punches out 10? ‘Well, I’m going to go eight innings and punch out 11,’ or whatever it is. When you have a guy like that in your rotation, he’s pushing the rest of the staff to keep up.”

Or as outfielder Austin Hays put it: “We’re going for it now.”

It continues Wednesday, when Burnes will take the mound for the second time as an Oriole. He’ll lick his fingers, then fiddle with the baseball, working the seams. He’s done this so many times — in bullpens, in spring training and in the postseason — and now Baltimore’s hopes rest on that routine.

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.

More From The Banner