It was the summer of 2014 at Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League’s All-Star Game at Cochran Park in Peconic when Corbin Burnes threw a pitch that got himself some attention.
As both HCBL President Sandi Kruel and former Director of Recruiting Brett Mauser told the story, the both of them were watching Burnes, who played with the Riverhead Tomcats that summer, throw during that All-Star Game along with New York Yankees scout Cesar Prescott, when the right-handed pitcher threw a dazzling breaking ball.
“What was that?” all three onlookers, Kruel, Mauser and Prescott, said to one another. Burnes would strike out the side in the third inning of that All-Star Game.
Burnes, now a member of the Milwaukee Brewers, earned one of Major League Baseball’s most coveted awards, the National League Cy Young Award, on November 17. In one of the closest votes in recent memory, Burnes beat out current Philadelphia Phillie and former New York Met Zack Wheeler and Los Angeles Dodger Max Scherzer for the award.
According to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, it was the closest National League vote since Cy Young Award balloting expanded to five pitchers in 2010, and only the second time that the winner and runner-up received the same number of first-place votes (12). In 1981, the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela and the Reds’ Tom Seaver each received eight first-place votes, with Valenzuela winning by just three points.
Kruel said Burnes’s success will have a direct effect on HCBL. All summer, college baseball leagues get ranked every year and HCBL has consistently finished in the top 10 of all leagues across the country for a number of years. Now that the league can boast having had a Cy Young pitcher that has played within its ranks, it takes on a little extra panache.
“When you get a player that has reached that level of success, we will now surpass the bottom half of that top 10 leagues in the country and be more within that top five and will be considered one of premier leagues in the country,” Kruel explained. “That’s something that we’ve always strived to be, to be the best, and this puts us in those categories now … it crosses that box and just puts us to another level. Colleges take you more seriously now, you become more competitive, you get an increase in the quality of players. As a whole, it takes us to a whole other level.
“We’re starting to reap what we sew,” she added. “It’s taken us a while, but it’s starting to happen and it’s really exciting for us.”
Burnes only pitched 167 innings in 2021, mostly due to the Brewers implementing a six-man rotation as opposed to a five-man. The 167 innings replaced Blake Snell’s 180 2/3 innings as the previous low by a Cy Young award winner in 2018. Burnes led MLB in a number of categories, including earned run average (2.43), strikeout rate (35.6 percent), strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.88) and home runs per nine innings (0.38). Only Scherzer had a lower walk/hits per nine innings than Burnes’ 0.94.
Burnes made history even before winning the Cy Young. He started the season with 58 strikeouts before issuing a walk. On August 11, Burnes struck out 10 consecutive Cubs to match the Major League record shared by Hall of Famer Seaver and Philadelphia Phillie Aaron Nola. And on September 11 in Cleveland, Burnes threw the first eight innings of the second no-hitter in Brewers history, as closer Josh Hader secured the final three outs.
Mauser said how Burnes reached the HCBL was all about connections and relationships made well before his initial arrival. Eric Valenzuela, who is now the head baseball coach at Long Beach State but was an assistant coach at San Diego State University back in 2013 and 2014, had turned Mauser on to Burnes, a native of Bakersfield, California, who pitched at St. Mary’s College in his home state, as a potential HCBL player.
“You’re getting someone who has a shot,” Mauser recalled Valenzuela saying to him about Burnes. “Again, with that relationship, you trust somebody. He says Burnes is someone who is going to be able to come out, give you good innings and has a high ceiling, that’s all I need to hear.”
Kruel said Burnes responded to texts from those within the league the same night he found out he won the ward, which to her speaks volumes to how much the league had an effect on him. In that respect she gave a lot of credit to both Patti White, who, along with Bob Furlong, was the general manager of the Riverhead Tomcats at the time, and Randy Caden, who was the head coach.
“The fact that he even responded means it was a memorable experience for him, so kudos to Patty and Randy Caden for doing that,” Kruel said.
White, who has been involved with the Tomcats since their inception into the league in 2009, first as a host family, then joining Furlong, who has since passed, as a GM later on. She remembers Burnes fondly because she was good friends with his host family, so she would get to socialize a little bit more with him than some other players.
“I still talk to his mom on Facebook over the years and it doesn’t surprise me that he has done so well,” White said. “He was a great teammate and I kind of look for those type of personalities in guys, the respect he showed me and Bob and the host families. He was such a humble guy, very personable.”
White mentioned it’s been quite the year or two for the Tomcats and their former players. On top of Burnes, former Tomcat Mike Brosseau, who is now a teammate of Burnes after being traded to Milwaukee earlier this month, had a successful postseason run with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2020. And Seby Zavala, another former Tomcat, played a big part in the Chicago White Sox victory over the New York Yankees in the highly televised Field of Dreams game this past season.
“Baseball wise, he worked,” White said of Burnes. “He knew what he was out here for and he had a great work ethic. Randy Caden, I know he enjoyed having him. Over the years, you know, Bob has passed away now, but we’d always talk about the guy’s personalities and stuff and we’d always say he’s going places. He put in the work, not that other guys didn’t, but Corbin was focused on where he wanted to go with his baseball aspirations.”
Burnes was 3-2 for Riverhead in 2014 with 46 strikeouts and 18 walks in 46 1/3 innings pitched. Following his time in HCBL, put together a strong spring season back at St. Mary’s in 2015 which he parlayed into a successful summer in the Cape Cod League. He was eventually drafted by the Brewers in the fourth round of the 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
“There are many things that this league is about and one of those things is being a launching pad for players who want to play at the highest level,” Mauser said. “Corbin seized that opportunity and seized every opportunity since then.”