WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Patrick Corbin threw 3,299 pitches last year in the regular season. Of those, 1,772 were fastballs, 1,221 were sliders, accounting for 90.7 percent of what he threw toward hitters.
He has a curious trait: Corbin is able to fool those with full knowledge of what he is going to do. He’s either going to throw a fastball or slider -- with a 10 percent deviation to pop a few question marks in there -- nine out of 10 times. The pitches look the same. It’s a fastball until it’s not, then the problems begin when a right-handed hitter realizes too late a slider is biting down toward his back foot.
This was the skill the New York Yankees wanted. They tried to sign Corbin when he became a free agent in 2018. Imagine if they had. Corbin would have faced the Houston Astros in the American League Championship Series instead of the World Series. Do the pitching-short Yankees win that series with Corbin? The Nationals almost assuredly do not win the World Series without him. New York didn’t want to pay the sixth year of his contract. Washington did. Everything changed.
The Nationals previously established their preference for starting pitching. They are not alone in the idea. It just doesn’t always work this well.
Max Scherzer’s $210 million contract has become a steal. If he stopped now, it would have been worth it. Stephen Strasburg’s initial extension worked. Now, Corbin, the recipient of a six-year, $140 million contract, has started by delivering a copy of his prior season and becoming a key, versatile weapon which delivered a championship.
Corbin is not in Washington to pitch out of the bullpen. He’s in the rotation as a third starter operating with a level of competence which would make him most teams’ top starter. Last year produced a 3.25 ERA, 33 starts, 202 innings, 238 strikeouts and a 1.18 WHIP. Those numbers almost matched what he did in Arizona the season before in order to earn such a cash haul. Yet, there’s room for him to be better.
Reading through Corbin’s 2019 numbers can feel odd. When his downhill games occurred, they did so with gusto. Six of Corbin’s 33 starts produced four or more runs for the opposition. Four of those delivered six or more runs. Change two of those to a more manageable four-run outing, and Corbin’s ERA drops to 3.07.
His first steps at spring training each season are to be sure his slider and fastball are on-point. This season, Corbin would like to be more consistent with his curveball and perhaps throw more changeups. He’s also rebooting his body after October’s intensity left him, and everyone else, spent.
“That whole month was very stressful, high-leverage games,” Corbin said.
Corbin missed 2014 because of Tommy John surgery. Since then, his workload has increased year after year, topping out with last season’s 202 innings. His flat goal for 2020 is to make all his starts. How does he make it there?
“Being smart,” Corbin said. “Listen to your body, sometimes back off a little bit, sometimes you need to do more.”
Not much changed for Corbin when he returned to his hometown of Syracuse in the offseason. A few more people showed up at charity events he did, but his family and friends treated him the same despite the World Series title. Plus, he was only visiting. Corbin has a house in West Palm Beach.
No signs denoting the World Series title populated the facility in the offseason if he stopped by. They are everywhere now -- at the parking lot entrance, after walking to the end of the parking lot, in the lobby after the parking lot, on the backside of the building -- and cannot be missed. They make Corbin smile.
“I think everyone has the same mindset,” Corbin said. “Same thing coming in last year. We think we’re going to have a competitive team out there that’s going to be there late in the season and we want to do it again. We know we won it last year, and want to talk about it and enjoy that as much as we can, but we can also learn from it and do better, but guys here want to do it just as much. How sweet would back-to-back be?”
If that occurs, Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin will again be the foundation. Washington took a chance by giving big money, and big years, to a trio of starting pitchers. It has one World Series title to show for it. Will there be another?
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