Corbin Burnes (Tod Fierner/St. Mary's Athletics)


Breakout Prospect: Corbin Burnes

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A year ago, Corbin Burnes was an unknown on the national prospect landscape, coming off a freshman season during which he went 0-4, 6.18 in 43.2 innings. His fastball sat right around 88 mph and topped out at 90 that spring — ordinary velocity for a college righthander.

Now, as Burnes heads into his junior season at St. Mary’s, he finds himself ranked among the top 25 college prospects for the 2016 draft — a pitcher with a legitimate chance to be drafted in the top two rounds next June. His emergence as a front-line prospect happened quickly, but it didn’t happen overnight.

“He worked his tail off as a freshman, and he got rushed into doing a lot of things,” said third-year St. Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela. “I think that also helped him, because he got to pitch in some big games as a freshman, and he got his butt kicked a little bit. He kept on improving and getting better.”

After that 2014 freshman spring, Burnes went to the Hampton’s Collegiate League and really started to blossom. Valenzuela said the league was a perfect fit for him — a low-pressure environment where he gradually gained confidence and learned how to dominate. He toned his 6-foot-3 frame, and his velocity started to climb, bumping 92-93 by the time he returned to campus that fall.

“I made huge strides in summer ball after my freshman year,” Burnes said. “That’s where I really learned to pitch. I really refined my mechanics, and that’s when everything started to click for me.”

Burnes worked hard to learn how to repeat a more compact delivery and keep his legs underneath him, which helped improve his command. His hard work last offseason paid off when he earned a spot in St. Mary’s weekend rotation as a sophomore and went 7-5, 3.74 with 91 strikeouts and 33 walks in 89 innings.

Originally, Burnes was slated to spend the summer pitching for the Danville Dans in the Prospect League. But when St. Mary’s ace Cameron Neff was shut down with an injury in April, Valenzuela arranged for Burnes to fill Neff’s spot on the roster for the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod League. Orleans coach Kelly Nicholson has known Valenzuela for years and was willing to give Burnes the benefit of the doubt. It wound up being a great thing for Orleans, and a coming-out party for Burnes.

“I think Kelly was doing me a favor, but (Burnes) just went off, man,” Valenzuela said. “Touching 96s, just blowing them away. And now — he’s a guy. It’s explosive stuff.”

Burnes went 5-3, 3.78 for the league powerhouse Firebirds and ranked as D1Baseball’s No. 9 Cape League prospect for the 2016 draft. He wowed scouts with a fastball that sat regularly at 92-95 mph and topped out at 96, and he mixed in an improved 80-82 slider and an 82-84 changeup with good run.

“I throw both a slider and a curveball. The slider’s more of an out pitch; the curveball’s developing,” Burnes said. “I also have a changeup. It wasn’t something I threw a lot going into college, but I developed it big time going from freshman year to sophomore year.”

Everyone knows that fastball command is critical, and Burnes can spot his heater well. But Valenzuela wants his pitchers to be confident enough in their secondary stuff to throw a 2-0 changeup or a 3-and-2 breaking ball, and Burnes is getting to that point. Valenzuela said Burnes can throw his diving circle changeup against both righties and lefties, and he calls it “a true swing-and-miss pitch.” When he stays on top of his slider and throws it with conviction, it flashes plus, up to 84-85 with sharp tilt. With that kind of three-pitch arsenal and the ability to hold his velocity deep into games, Burnes has a real chance to stick as a starting pitcher. And if he convinces enough scouts next spring that he can be a bona fide big league starter, he could climb into the first round.

It’s quite a climb for a kid from Bakersfield, Calif., who showed up at St. Mary’s with little fanfare.

“It’s all new to him — undrafted out of high school, now you’ve got all these big-name advisers blowing him up,” Valenzuela said. “He’s totally green with this whole thing. So I’ve had to put my arm around him and guide him through this and say, ‘Hey man, you just need to pitch, do what you do.’

“He’s kind of like A.J. Griffin (whom Valenzuela coached at San Diego), who was undrafted out of high school. They don’t know any better, they just compete. He’s totally normal, man. He’s not about the hype or any of that stuff. Nothing fazes him. He’s not concerned about the draft.”

Indeed, Burnes comes across as down-to-earth and speaks in matter-of-fact terms. If his rise to prospect prominence feels surreal to him, he sure doesn’t show it. And that’s a big reason for his success.

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