Since Mike Rizzo was hired, the Washington Nationals have prided themselves on their starting rotation. From drafting Stephen Strasburg, to inking Max Scherzer to a monster deal, to adding top free-agent starter Patrick Corbin prior to the 2019 World Series Championship season, the foundation of the team has been it’s starters.
Coming off a career-season in Arizona, Corbin posted a career best 3.15 ERA in 200 innings and was named an All-Star in 2018. In his six years with the Diamondbacks, Corbin had a .509% winning percentage (56-54) and a 3.91 ERA. He allowed 447 runs and 944 hits, and struck out 897 batters in 172 games played and 154 games started. While in Arizona, Corbin also appeared in two all-star games and finished 5th and 11th in the Cy-Young voting in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
Corbin was rewarded with a 6 year / $140,000,000 guaranteed contract including a $2,500,000 signing bonus and an annual average salary of $23,333,333.
A Closer Look:
Since coming to the Washington Nationals in 2019, Corbin’s Wiff %, strikeout rate %, and Pitches in the Zone percentage have been on the decline along with other important metrics.
For example, according to Baseball Savant, Corbin’s strikeout rate with the Diamondback in 2018 was 30%, dipped down to 28.5% in 2019, and it went down even further to 20% in 2020. Through a few games this season, Corbin’s strikeout rate currently sits at a mere 17%.
If you just looked at the strikeout rate and made a determination on that stat alone, it would not be fair. However, if you look at it in conjunction with his hard-hit rate, it raises some eyebrows. In his last year with the Diamondbacks in 2018, his hard hit percentage was at 35.6% and has increased annually since coming to the Nationals:
2021 (Through April 29th): 46%.
In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Nationals were dreadful, but so was Corbin. Throwing 65 innings, he had the second highest ERA of his career, 4.66, and his fastball velocity dropped from the 34th percentile to the 17th in 2020. According to Baseball Savant, Corbin rated great in xBA, K%, and chase rate for 2019. However, in 2020, Corbin’s xBA and K% dropped to a poor rating, while chase rate remained great.
Onto 2021, Corbin has four starts, but only 16.1 innings pitched. For reference, Scherzer had pitched 25 innings in his first four starts. Corbin has a 10.47 ERA and has already given up 10 home runs while only striking out 14 batters. Despite these troubling stats and the slightly diminished fastball velocity in his four starts, both Dave Martinez and Corbin have said there are no injury concerns. In fact, Davey blamed some of the poor pitch placement on Corbin’s tweaked delivery due to his increased use of a changeup throughout spring. He was seemingly back to normal during his April 20th start against St. Louis where he threw six shutout innings on an easy 76 pitches.
However, in Corbin’s appearance against the Mets on April 25th, he lasted only four innings and gave up four runs that could have easily been much more than that. He was missing location again and they were not chasing his slider, which is his “out” pitch.
Below, you can see his percentiles so far for 2021. In every single category through his starts, Patrick Corbin rates poor in every single category.
Now, what can the Washington Nationals do with Patrick Corbin in the short term? He is on a massive deal and with his recent poor performance, it seems very unlikely that Rizzo could get fair value for him in a trade. Another cog in this machine is the debut of Jon Lester and the return of Strasburg from the IL. It appears that Lester could be ready to go in the Marlins series pending his next bullpen results. Strasburg is more of an unknown, but it will be much easier to hide Corbin in the rotation if he returns to form.
With Erick Feede and Joe Ross pitching a lot better, we might see Corbin removed from the Nationals pitching rotation altogether. Federal Baseball floated this idea: “Back in 2016, Corbin had similar struggles for most of the season – this was also the last season where his slider wasn’t the pitch he threw the most percentage-wise — and wound up pitching out of the bullpen for the last two months of the season to try and figure things out. The stint in the bullpen allowed Corbin to narrow his focus to his fastball and slider which he threw a combined 94.9% of the time in that span, per FanGraphs, rather than needing to worry about a full pitching arsenal as a starter going through a lineup multiple times. With a narrower focus on those two pitches, Corbin thrived out of the bullpen, posting a 2.70 ERA in 12 relief appearances, striking out 26, and walking nine in 23.1 innings. The move to the bullpen back then was the first time he was able to truly unlock the huge swing-and-miss potential in his slider.”
Moving Corbin to the bullpen for a bit wouldn’t be the worst idea. However, maybe putting Corbin on the IL with a “mystery ailment”, would allow him to go to the alternate site in Fredericksburg, where he can work on his pitching outside the spotlight of Major League games. The continued success of Ross and Fedde along with the returns of Lester and Strasburg would allow this to happen.
No matter what the Nationals do in the short term, the starting rotation has to be good for Washington to have a successful season. Scherzer has carried them so far, but everyone else needs to be right. Corbin was such an integral part of the 2019 team, if he can return to form, Nationals fans may finally be able to see the full power of the rotation Rizzo assembled this offseason.