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2018 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews: #3, Patrick Corbin

Patrick “Captain Sully” Corbin found a new flight path during the 2018 season. His departure has altered the path of the Arizona Diamondbacks going forward.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Arizona Diamondbacks Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
  • 2018 rating: 8.70
  • 2017 rating: 7.07
  • 2018 salary: $7,500,000
  • 2018 performance: 33 GS, 11-7, 246 SO, 48 BB, 3.15 ERA, 137 ERA+, 77 ERA-, 2.61 xFIP, 4.6 bWAR, 6.3 fWAR
  • 2019 status: Free agent, signed 6 year $140 million contract with the Washington Nationals

It’s been a long, hard fought 6 years in Arizona for Patrick Corbin full of towering peaks and cratering valleys. After a solid yet inconsistent 2017 season, he entered 2018 as his last year before reaching free agency for the first time, and it was not certain how sought after he would be on the open market. Corbin had already undergone Tommy John Surgery and missed all of the 2014 season as a result. The left hander lost his rotation spot entirely at the end of 2016, and was withheld from the postseason staff in 2017. He showed flashes of the dominant promise we suspected he had as a prospect in spurts, but never seemed to string it together consistently. That changed in 2018 at the most opportunistic time possible en route to life altering money for the young man.

2018 was easily the best season of Patrick Corbin’s career, but how was he able to do it? What changes did he make to his game that took him from respectable #3 starter in a rotation to staff ace and National League Cy Young candidate? I’d spoken glowingly of his whipeout slider in the past. Just before the season began I pondered the potential success he could have if he continued to increase the usage of his slider.

“His sinker, fourseam, and changeup have all been hit particularly hard throughout his time in the big leagues, but hitters struggle to make meaningful contact against his slider as it has the highest percentage of whiffs and lowest isolated power outcome in his repertoire... When his slider is working and falling near the back foot of a right handed hitter, it is one of my favorite pitches to watch.”

Patrick did in fact increase the usage of his slider in 2018, but it also does not tell the entire story.

Brooks Baseball

You can see in the chart above how his slider usage has increased over the years to a career high 41.5% in 2018. However, there is a new introduction in 2018 that Brooks Baseball and other venues have identified as a curveball. In all honestly, it wasn’t the curveball you expect in a traditional sense but more realistically a slower, loopier version of his slider. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs had written about this change in his game both early on in the season when it was being observed for the first time and just after he signed his massive free agent deal when more data was available. A handful of people, casual observers here on the Pit, broadcasters, and baseball nerds alike noticed this change early on.

This newfound pitch was integral to his repertoire because it played off of his slider. There was about 10 MPH in variance between the curve and slider, and they were thrown at relatively similar release points in contrast to his fastball. The two pitches look similar coming out of his hand, but had different movement past the hitter’s decision point to swing and thus ended up on different parts of the plate. His whipeout slider would finish around the backfoot of a right handed batter, but the slow curve would be caught around the outside black of the plate for a righty. That made it incredibly difficult for hitters to adjust to Patrick, and it resulted in him making them looking foolish all season long with his new weapon.

The most dominant outing of his career to this point came on April 17th at Chase Field against the San Francisco Giants. Patrick went toe-to-toe with Johnny Cueto in this contest. Corbin carried a no hitter all the way to two outs in the top of the eighth. With the infield shift on, Brandon belt slapped a (cheap) single between third base and shortstop to break up the no hitter. The only other baserunner Corbin allowed in the game was Joe Panik who walked in the 4th. He needed only 100 pitches to record his first complete game shutout in his career. Corbin’s game score of 92 that night is now tied for 9th best in Diamondbacks history. No prizes for anyone who knows the only two pitchers besides Patrick who occupy the other spots ahead of him in franchise history.

Unlike seasons past since his surgery, the above dominant performance was not a flash in the pan. He only had 7 starts on the year where he allowed 4 earned runs or more, and was able to pitch at least 6 innings in 24 of his starts. It didn’t take long for the national media to catch on to his ascension. Corbin won National League Player of the Week for the above mentioned performance, and was named to the Midsummer Classic for the second time in his career, first since 2013. Patrick placed 5th in Cy Young voting, and his xFIP of 2.61, second to Jacob deGrom’s 2.60, suggests that his 2018 season was better than his luck allowed. It’s a relatively obscene figure considering the elite team defense he had around him.

The most memorable performance of the season, in my opinion, came on April 4th against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Chase Field. I remember it vividly because it was one of the Wednesday matinee games I had to recap. I skipped work that day to watch the game in person and was blown away by his dominance. He struck out a then career high 12 batters, and he’d later go on to match that figure on June 22nd. Patrick almost kept the Dodgers hitless, but Matt Kemp hit a cheap, flukely double down the right field line in the top of the 5th and then walked with one out in the top of the eight. How annoying was Kemp this season? It was one of the most beautifully pitched games I’d ever seen in person.

As Corbin continued to pile up dominant starts, the uncertainty that surrounded his free agency faded rapidly. He went from being a second tier arm prior to the season to one of the most highly prized arms by the end of it. It became increasingly obvious that the Arizona Diamondbacks were not going to be able to retain his services. Because Arizona did not trade him during the season, they were entitled to, and did, extend him a qualifying offer at the conclusion of the World Series. Unsurprisingly, he declined and wisely chose to enter the open market in search of the largest contract he will likely sign in his lifetime. It was the perfect storm for him considering he had put up a career season, and he was in higher demand because Clayton Kershaw agreed to an extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers rather than test free agency himself.

The only question that remained would be where he would eventually end up. Much of the speculation during and after the season suggested that the New York Yankees would sign him as they pressed to stay under the luxury tax threshold. There was a head scratching quote provided by Corbin to Bob Nightengale of USA Today after winning Player of the Week.

“It would definitely be great to play there,’’ Corbin says. “I grew up a Yankee fan. My whole family are Yankee fans. My mom, my dad, my grandpa, everybody. Really, every generation of my family has been Yankee fans.

That did not go over well with Diamondbacks fans to say the least. It’s an odd thing to say about another team in the league while under contract during the middle of the season. Shortly after that remark Patrick came out and clarified that he loved playing in Arizona, and I’d venture to say that someone with the organization had a discussion with him about the quote behind closed doors. Maybe, maybe not.

His market moved rather quickly after the conclusion of the season. He reportedly met with the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, and Yankees. Brian Cashman claims that New York never made a serious offer for Corbin knowing that he was looking for a 6 year contract, and apparently Philadelphia was uncomfortable going beyond 5 years as well. Corbin eventually agreed to terms with the Washington Nationals for 6 years and $140 million dollars, and will join what may be one of the more dominant rotations in the league with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Corbin and his agent wisely elected to heavily backload his contract culminating in a $35 million payday in 2024, the final year of the deal, and $10 million deferred to 2025 when he is scheduled to be a free agent again. The contract undoubtedly sets him up nicely for the rest of his life.

Whether he earns every dollar of that contract remains to be seen, but that’s not the Arizona Diamondbacks problem. They have their own pitcher with roughly nine figures still remaining to worry about. I’m a believer in Patrick Corbin going forward if he can stay healthy. The changes he made to his game this season show that he is willing to adapt in order to advance his dominance. He’s going to need to continue to do that as he ages and as hitters adjust to him. He had the concerning drop in velocity this season, but it did not seem to have much of an impact on what he was able to do on the mound. It is important to note that he was remarkably better on the mound with Jeff Mathis behind the plate than Alex Avila or John Ryan Murphy, so it will be interesting to see how he fares without one of the game’s premier framers. If his slider does not lose its bite, and if he continues to develop the slower curveball variant of it, he should provide surplus value for the first few years of his contract at least.

Patrick Corbin finished his D’backs career 3rd in games started (154), 3rd in strikeouts (897), 3rd in innings pitched (945.2), and 4th in wins (56). We wish Corbin the best of luck in his career moving forward except of course when he faces the Diamondbacks. Thanks for the memories.