Patrick Corbin hasn’t been the pitcher the Nationals signed him to be ever since he exited the eighth inning of Game 7 in the 2019 World Series, having just held the Houston Astros scoreless over three innings of relief.
The left-hander earned every cent of his six-year, $140 million deal with Washington for his contributions to the franchise’s first championship run. He’s also been statistically one of the worst pitchers in baseball for the last two seasons.
Corbin has looked nothing like the pitcher that hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy at Minute Maid Park, posting an 11-23 record with a 5.50 ERA across 42 starts between 2020-21. He’s had a particularly tough time keeping the ball in the yard; only journeyman starter Jordan Lyles has allowed more home runs than Corbin’s 47 over that span.
Even so, the Nationals demonstrated their faith in him when manager Davey Martinez named Corbin their Opening Day starter for the 2022 season. With Stephen Strasburg sidelined while he works his way back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, there may not have been another choice. Yet Martinez asserted Wednesday that Corbin “deserves” the opportunity to start Game 1 after working this offseason to put the last two years behind him.
“As I watched him go through spring training, he came in spring training with everything we thought we tried to get him to do and he did well,” Martinez said in a press conference at Nationals Park. “So I’m excited to get him out there. He’s done it before…I’m looking for Corbin to be the guy that he was in ’19 and he’s worked really hard this winter to be that guy again.”
The work Corbin did was stabilizing his mechanics to make them more repeatable. He also focused on improving the command of his fastball and slider.
“Just locating my fastball, getting back to that, simplifying things, getting back to controlling my slider,” Corbin said Wednesday of what went well for him in spring training. “I thought we just did a good job with that. I was able to build up to 90 pitches so I feel good and I feel back to where I was.”
Corbin’s slider was once among the most effective individual pitches in the game. He struck out 161 batters with it in 2019, according to Statcast. The only pitcher to strike out more with a single pitch that season was Gerrit Cole, who claimed 177 victims with his fastball. Since the start of the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, however, Corbin’s slider has been much more hittable. His velocity dropped, as did the spin rate on the pitch.
When he did start to regain that velocity down the stretch last summer, Corbin needed some time to harness it. He closed out the year with quality starts in four of his final five outings, still battling some control issues but throwing harder than he had at any point in the previous two years.
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 The Fan’s Sports Junkies he attributes Corbin’s decline in velocity to his usage in 2019, a season in which the former Tommy John recipient threw a career-high 225 1/3 innings between the regular season and playoffs. The ramp-up, shut-it-down, ramp-back-up-again nature of the 2020 season did him no favors, either.
Despite the results, Corbin has maintained confidence in his slider. He felt the pitch wasn't as effective because he didn't locate his fastball well.
“I think my slider has always been right,” Corbin said. “It’s just the command of the fastball, falling behind guys, things like that so, like I said, just simplifying mechanics, throwing quality strikes. My slider will play off of that and just mixing eye levels and I just feel where I’m at with my delivery, being able to repeat things [and] able to stay on the corners, is something I’ve been able to do kinda towards the end of last season and then continued into this spring.”
With a full offseason to work things out, Corbin enters a prove-it year in 2022. The Nationals are showing just as much confidence in him now as they did when they trotted him out for Game 7. It’s now up to Corbin to show them that faith is still being put in the right place.