Can the Nationals fix Patrick Corbin?


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Within the Washington Nationals organization, questions about Patrick Corbin’s past, present and future typically just lead to more questions, then a rabbit hole, then often something resembling a dead end.

At this point, a thought exercise has blended with problem-solving, as Corbin has evolved into a pitcher who’s far less effective than he was in a short prime. The starting point is simply: What happened to the Patrick Corbin who helped the Nationals win the World Series in 2019, recording nine outs in relief in Game 7? After that, though, why has the whiff rate on his slider plummeted? And how important is slider velocity? Or fastball velocity? Or was Washington always destined for rough seasons after giving a six-year, $140 million contract to a lefty who heavily relied on two pitches?

Is this less about scouting reports and mechanics, and more about age and an evolving sport? Was Corbin physically taxed by the title run, already behind when play resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, hit hard in 2020 and then afraid to attack the zone in 2021?

It’s complicated, of course, which has made it harder for the Nationals’ staff, video team and analytics department to set Corbin straight. That became clear through conversations with Corbin, pitching coach Jim Hickey and more than a half dozen people in the organization, some of whom have had a hands-on role in assessing Corbin’s past three seasons. And the answer — at least the umbrella answer to how he’s slid from World Series hero to an ever-struggling starter at 32 — is woven through all of the above.

“He’s not a very demonstrative guy,” Hickey told The Washington Post in mid-May. “He doesn’t break s— after tough starts or mope around the clubhouse. But I know it bothers him inside. It absolutely bothers him.”

When the Nationals signed Corbin in December 2018, they knew the risks of a long-term contract. If the back half was worse than the front, so be it. But what Washington could not account for was this sharp of a fall for Corbin, whose 5.77 ERA is worst among all starters since the beginning of the 2020 season.

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There is no shortage of theories around the club. Corbin’s best explanation is that he was worn down after 2019, ramped up too quickly during the pandemic, raised his arm slot a bit to find velocity and is still paying for the mechanical flaw, which lowered the speed of his slider — a key for him — and messed with his fastball command. Manager Dave Martinez has repeatedly said Corbin has to work down in the zone again, which others feel is an oversimplified explanation because of how well many batters crush low pitches. Hickey points to a psychological tick, suggesting Corbin started nibbling around the zone when the results turned in 2020, leading him into hitters’ counts that typically went the hitter’s way.

General Manager Mike Rizzo wants to see more aggression on the inside part of the plate. Throughout the past two seasons, Washington’s analytics department pushed Corbin to throw even more sliders, though his usage has declined to 32 percent in 2022, his lowest in six years. In 2018, the year that caught Washington’s attention, Corbin threw the pitch a career-high 41 percent of the time. But Corbin, an all-star for the Arizona Diamondbacks in that 2018 season, is no longer the strikeout pitcher who can rely on whiff after whiff with his slider. When he’s had flashes of success this spring, he’s pounded the zone and induced enough soft contact.

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An even bigger question, then, is not if Corbin can get back to who he once was, but can he get remotely close?

“You just try to make your pitches and hope they hit it to somebody,” Corbin said, outlining a far different approach than he had in his late 20s, when the whiff rate on his slider was over 50 percent in back-to-back seasons. After Corbin yielded 12 hits and seven earned runs to the New York Mets on Tuesday, hitters had swung and missed on only 31.8 percent of his sliders this year.

“If this is the new version of him, if he’s pounding the strike zone, pounding the strike zone, pounding the strike zone, then there are going to be a handful of games that just really don’t go your way,” Hickey said , foreshadowing the exact sort of start Corbin had against the Mets. “In other words: They are going to kick the s— out of you sometimes. But you can’t veer away from the approach and get shy. I’ll take 20 solid outings and four clunkers if that’s the way it is going to be. When he falls behind, that’s when he has to give in and we’re not in good shape.”

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By now, it is common for Corbin to stare at the clubhouse floor and shrug during postgame interviews. He regularly says that he felt good, despite the results. He will lament the grounders that rolled through holes. He is throwing more change-ups, walking fewer batters and allowing fewer home runs so far. But he’s still yielded the most hits (73) and earned runs (42) of any pitcher in the majors.

And though he’s struggled to find solutions, Corbin’s slider velocity came up in a handful of discussions. Generally, higher slider velocity has correlated to more swinging strikes, which indicates both good deception and movement with his go-to pitch. Between 81 and 82 mph is his sweet spot. On either side of that range, his swinging strike percentage will either dip a tad or drastically.


Patrick Corbin’s slider gets most swinging strikes in low 80s

All sliders thrown by Corbin in 2021-22 seasons.

Size of circles

indicates number

of swinging strikes

Patrick Corbin’s slider gets most swinging strikes in low 80s

All sliders thrown by Corbin in 2021-22 seasons.

Size of circles

indicates number

of swinging strikes

Patrick Corbin’s slider gets most swinging

strikes in low 80s

All sliders thrown by Corbin in 2021-22 seasons.

Size of circles

indicates number

of swinging strikes

In 2018, for example, his average slider velocity was between those two numbers in each month (ideal). In 2020, after he threw 21⅓ innings in the previous postseason, he dropped to 79.4 mph for the shortened season (not ideal). Then in 2021, it fluctuated throughout the year: 78.4 in April, 79.9 in May, 79.5 in June, 81.1 in July, 82.4 in August and 81.5 in September. That August, Ryan Zimmerman told reporters Corbin was “abused in 2019 in the Can the Nationals fix Patrick Corbin? run.”


Patrick Corbin’s slider velocity month by month

Patrick Corbin’s slider velocity month by month

Patrick Corbin’s slider velocity month by month

Corbin’s slider and fastballs have to work in tandem, requiring pinpoint command at the bottom of the zone. When the slider velocity sags, though, his arm speed is slower, making it easy for batters to identify whether he’s throwing a fastball or breaking pitch. When the velocity is in that 81 to 82 zone, his arm speed is the same and the pitches tend to follow a near-identical path out of his hand. That’s helped swinging strike spike in recent seasons, according to two Nationals staffers who explained Corbin’s arsenal. Otherwise, the takes and walks have piled up.

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“Sometimes I intentionally throw a slower slider just to get the pitch over for a strike,” said Corbin, who has a 6.96 ERA through 11 starts this season. “But yeah, for the most part, I’ve had trouble staying consistent with my slider velocity, and I think that’s hurt me some. That’s a mix of mechanics and feel with the pitch.”

“I don’t think a lot has changed,” Rizzo said Wednesday. “I think the approach, to me, needs to be tweaked and the game plan needs to be adjusted [to pitch hitters inside more]. But his stuff is still good, his velocity is where it’s supposed to be, his spin rate is where it’s supposed to be, and I think it’s just a matter of he’s got to hit his spots and pitch his game to get back to where he was.”

At his peak, Corbin was ahead of curve for starters leaning heavy on off-speed pitches. But from 2017 to 2021, slider usage jumped from 16.1 percent of all pitches to 19.2, totaling about 20,000 additional sliders across a 162-game season. This season, 21 percent of pitches have been sliders, meaning batters are potentially more comfortable against the pitch.

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Yes, Corbin has also felt the sport shift around him, forcing changes that have not been smooth. In a May 15 start against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hunter Greene, a young pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, threw more sliders than fastballs in 7⅓ no-hit innings. Greene, though, is a prototype for the modern ace, armed with a fastball that can reach triple-digits. Still, hitter tendencies—and the popular goal of crushing fastballs with upward-angled swings—have made it prudent to sometimes feature his slider more than enviable heat. Corbin, on the other hand, sits in the low-90s and has always needed to rip slider after slider to thrive. Not long ago that was more unique.

“The league is certainly throwing more breaking balls because it’s a swing-and-miss league. This is what everyone’s chasing: Swing and a miss, swing and a miss,” Hickey said. “If you see 400 sliders in a year, certainly you’re going to be less affected by it than if you see only 100 sliders in a year or 200 sliders in a year. I think that’s a factor for sure.

“The more tape on you, the more games you pitch, your stuff goes down a tick when you get older … there are no secrets anymore. You have to adapt and be one step ahead of what everyone else is seeing in you. Patrick has maybe learned that the hard way, but we’re going to figure it out.”



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