Nationals

Nationals

With the return of baseball in question amid the coronavirus outbreak, we’re ranking the Nationals’ 10 biggest strengths that we’re looking forward to watching once play finally does resume. Up next is the slider that makes Patrick Corbin one of the best lefties in baseball.

On Dec. 7, 2018, the Nationals signed Patrick Corbin to a six-year, $140 million contract that made him the fourth-most expensive left-handed starter in baseball.

When Washington signed that deal, the risks were apparent. They were buying in on a starter who, to that point, had only two ace-like seasons on his resume, reached the 200-inning threshold once and underwent Tommy John surgery four years prior. Coming off a career year, Corbin was no sure bet to be pitching like a pitcher deserving of $140 million six years into his contract.

But while no deal of that size can be worth it with one great season, Corbin did just about everything he could to justify the dollars.

He didn’t miss a start, accumulating 202 innings with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts in the regular season before operating as one of manager Davey Martinez’s few trusted pitchers in the playoffs—cementing his place in D.C. history with three scoreless innings out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the World Series.

After the season, Corbin was named the 2019 Warren Spahn Award winner, an honor handed out annually since 1999 to the best left-hander in baseball. It was a season that silenced the critics, proving his 2018 resurgence had been no fluke. As it turns out, all he had to do was continue relying on the pitch that he built his career on in the first place: his slider.

 

To understand just how effective Corbin’s slider is, you first have to understand how he uses it. Corbin operates primarily outside the strike zone; last season, he threw just 39.2 percent of his pitches inside the confines of the zone (the second-lowest rate in baseball among qualified starters). As a strikeout pitcher, he relies on getting swings and misses to generate outs—especially on pitches outside the zone.

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Opposing batters made contact on just 48.8 percent of his pitches that landed outside the strike zone last season. How good is that? Only two qualified starters fared better: Gerrit Cole and Shane Bieber, who finished second and fourth in AL Cy Young voting, respectively.

Corbin uses a three-pitch repertoire that consists of a four-seamer, sinker and slider with the occasional changeup and curveball mixed in. He hammers the slider and sinker against righties and relies on the fastball to set up the slider against lefties. Regardless of what type of batter is facing him, he pounds the lower-right quadrant of the zone—down and in to righties, down and away to lefties.

More often than not, the slider is Corbin’s out pitch. It looks like a fastball coming out of his hand but travels on average 10.2 mph slower than his four-seamer. That’s the third-biggest speed differential between a fastball and slider of any left-handed starter, giving hitters a look they rarely ever see. Couple that with wicked horizontal movement and you have the makings of one of the best sliders in baseball.

“My father showed me [the pitch] when I was pretty young,” Corbin said in an interview with MASN’s Dan Kolko last July. “Kinda cool that I’ve never had to change it so I’ve kinda thrown it my whole life. I think that’s why I’m able to control it. It feels natural to me…I think because I’ve had the same grip I’ve been able to change shapes of it, speeds, being able to throw for strikes, back-foot it to righties.”

The results have been nothing short of eye-popping. Corbin generated whiffs on 27.8 percent of the sliders he threw in 2019. Another way to put it: 51.7 percent of the time an opposing hitter swung at one of his sliders, they missed it.

By FanGraphs’ pitch value metric that judges how well a pitcher fares using a particular pitch, Corbin’s slider was the fourth-most valuable slider in baseball last season. The only pitchers ahead of him were Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom—none of whom are left-handed. When you’re in the company of a trio of pitchers that’s combined for five of the last eight Cy Young awards, you must be doing something right.

 

As it turns out, the Corbin signing was one of the final moves Washington needed to make to assemble a championship roster. The jury is still out on how we’ll be performing deep into his contract, but behind his world-class slider Corbin has already proven to be one of the Nationals’ best weapons.

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