In MLB's Year of the Pitcher, both Corbin Burnes and Robbie Ray completed their own kind of comebacks.
The Toronto Blue Jays' Ray rebounded from a dismal season that led to him taking a rare pay cut to win the American League Cy Young Award, while the Milwaukee Brewers' Burnes returned from a bout of COVID-19 early this season to win the National League's top pitching prize. Both winners were announced Wednesday evening.
"Everyone has their story," Burnes said during a conference call.
Burnes led Major League Baseball with a 2.43 ERA this season and edged out Zack Wheeler of the Philadelphia Phillies. They both got 12 first-place votes from members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, but Burnes drew 14 second-place votes to Wheeler's nine.
Burnes pitched 167 innings, the fewest for a Cy Young-winning starter in a nonshortened season, and struck out 234 batters. Wheeler struck out 247 — one shy of Ray's MLB-leading total — and topped the majors with 213 1/3 innings.
"Everyone's case was different," Burnes said.
Ray was best in the AL with a 2.84 ERA and 193 1/3 innings. That came after a 2020 season, shortened to 60 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the left-hander went a combined 2-5 with a 6.62 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Blue Jays and issued the most walks in the majors.
"I knew ... I was going to have to put in some hard work," Ray said, adding, "I knew I wanted to make changes."
And in a sign of just how much voters have moved past simply win-loss records while crunching new-era stats, Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Julio Urías (20-3) posted the most victories but finished a distant eighth and didn't get a single top-four nod.
Max Scherzer, who pitched for the Dodgers and the Washington Nationals this season, finished third in the NL, while the Dodgers' Walker Buehler was fourth.
Burnes became the first Brewers pitcher to earn the NL honor. Pete Vuckovich in 1982 and Rollie Fingers in 1981 won the award when Milwaukee was still in the American League.
Ray got 29 first-place votes and became the first Toronto pitcher to win since the late Roy Halladay in 2003. New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole drew the other top vote and finished second, and Chicago White Sox right-hander Lance Lynn was third.
Ray went 13-7 in 32 starts and helped keep Toronto in playoff contention until the final weekend.
Having turned 30 last month, the award sets him up well. A free agent, he turned down an $18.4 million qualifying offer from the Blue Jays earlier Wednesday.
"I'm enjoying free agency. The process is a lot of fun," he said, adding that Toronto is "still in the conversation."
"Obviously, I love Toronto, but we'll see where things go," he said.
Burnes was 11-5 and an All-Star for the Brewers, runaway winners of the NL Central Division. His innings count was lower than his competitors, owing to him missing two weeks in early May after testing positive for the coronavirus.
In his first season as a full-time starter, Burnes struck out a record 58 batters before issuing his first walk. He tied an MLB mark when he fanned 10 in a row against the Chicago Cubs in August.
Burnes also combined with closer Josh Hader on a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in September. Burnes struck out 14 in eight innings in that game, which was the record ninth no-hitter in the majors this season, topping the eight in 1884, when pitchers began throwing overhand.
Burnes had an 8.82 ERA in 28 relief appearances and four starts in 2019, then was 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA during the virus-shortened season when he was hampered by an oblique strain. He came back to lead the majors with 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings this year.
"You always have to evolve," he said.
Voting for the awards was completed before the playoffs began. Burnes threw six shutout innings against the Atlanta Braves in their NL Division Series and turned 27 later in October.
Ray's power arm always drew attention. He ranks No. 1 in MLB history with 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings (minimum 1,000 innings), and he was an All-Star with Arizona in 2017, but controlling his heat and sharp breaking pitches often was a problem, and Ray bottomed out last year.
The dip caused his base salary to drop from $9.43 million to $8 million this year. He earned some of that back with a $125,000 bonus for winning the Cy Young, and he figures to cash in even more soon.
Drafted and signed by Washington in 2010, Ray made his MLB debut in 2014 with the Detroit Tigers as part of a staff that included future Cy Young winners Scherzer, Rick Porcello, David Price and Justin Verlander.
Ray was traded with cash to Toronto on Aug. 31, 2020, for reliever Travis Bergen. Ray was 49-51 with a 4.26 ERA in seven seasons in the majors before this big year. He is the fifth Blue Jays pitcher to win the Cy Young, along with Halladay, Roger Clemens in 1997-98 and Pat Hentgen in 1996.
League MVPs will be announced Thursday, ending the BBWAA awards season.
Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani, already honored with a special honor from MLB for his prowess as a pitcher and hitter this year, is considered the AL favorite, with Toronto's Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien the other finalists.
Phillies star Bryce Harper, Washington outfielder Juan Soto and San Diego Padres dynamo Fernando Tatis Jr. are the NL finalists.
No matter who wins, it will mark the first time since 1987 (the Cubs' Andre Dawson and Toronto's George Bell) that neither MVP reached the playoffs in the year they were elected.