Ode to a Pitcher: Patrick Corbin and his truly incredible slider

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Patrick Corbin’s slider flummoxed hitters and opened the Washington Nationals’ checkbook.

How much is one pitch worth?

If you ask the Washington Nationals: about $140 million. They told us so when the club signed pitcher Patrick Corbin to a six-year deal at that figure, all on the brilliance of his slider, which itself only really became brilliant last season.

And brilliant it is: according to Fangraphs’ pitch value metric, it was the fourth most valuable offering in all of baseball. Let me just rattle off some numbers about that slider:

  • Corbin threw it 40.9% of the time
  • Corbin struck out 198 (!!!) batters off that pitch alone; his other offerings produced 51 punchouts
  • Hitters slugged a meager .243 off it
  • Hitters missed 53.6% of the time they swung at it

Corbin’s slider is tunneled neatly with his fastball and boasts a long, slurve-y break that’s hard to make contact with. It’s quite a breaking ball. Compared to other hurlers profiled in this series (Pedro Martinez, Johan Santana, Mike Mussina and Jacob deGrom), Corbin’s repertoire is relatively slim. His fastballs are slightly above average by pitch value; his changeup is below average and his curveball just barely above.

Said differently: Years removed from Tommy John surgery, Corbin has become a really good pitcher — 6.3 fWAR, 2.61 xFIP — because he has a really good pitch. Singular. Pitch. The slider carries the water. And as such, his entire approach is to rely on it to both setup hitters and to finish them, sprinkling in a fastball here or a curveball there as essentially change-of-pace offerings.

Just ask the Los Angeles Dodgers. Very early in the 2018 season, the boys in blue headed over to Chase Field to face Corbin. It didn’t go well — especially not for Enrique Hernandez, Yasmani Grandal and Matt Kemp.

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The Dodgers erstwhile utility man stepped up to face Corbin to open the second inning.

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Corbin stands tall on the mound and has a pleasing delivery, nice and smooth. His fastball isn’t particularly hard (this game takes place in April — his velocity averaged a few ticks south of 94 for the season), but it doesn’t have to be — the slider keeps hitters off balance.

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Corbin draws a bit of a flinch from Hernandez here — a good example of how hard it is to pick up the slider. Note that a two-strike count against Corbin means you’ll probably see the slider — he threw it more than 65% of the time in such situations. Oh, and if you do, you’ll probably produce an out.

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Catcher Jeff Mathis set up inside but Corbin missed. It’s a good take from Hernandez nonetheless.

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Even though the slider missed, it still served a purpose. Corbin proved to Hernandez he’d work both sides of the plate which helped draw the half-swing on a fastball clearly in the zone. The utilityman is the first punchout of the inning.

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There was some discussion on this broadcast (available in the MLB.TV archives) about whether Corbin’s curveball is really a curveball or simply a slider thrown intentionally softer. The release above looks like a curve to me.

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Corbin comes back with another fastball away that just misses for ball two. We’ll notice a theme with Corbin’s work to the Dodgers today. He wants to establish the fastball away to righties to setup the slider down and in. Corbin more or less finagles his way to two strikes so he can finish you with the slider, even if everyone in the ballpark knows it’s coming.

But to get there with Grandal, Corbin has a lot of ground to make up.

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Instead of offering another fastball, Corbin goes with a high-and-away breaking ball that the Dodgers catcher watches for a called strike. It’s kind of a ballsy choice — you miss with that over the plate and Grandal has enough pop to make you pay. Corbin does miss high, but not enough to tempt a swing.

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This is the pitch Corbin can’t make. I’m not sure if Grandal was expecting slider — then again, facing Corbin, you probably are always expecting it. Either way, he let a meatball go here. Maybe Grandal misread it, maybe the slider kept him weary, who knows. Somehow, Corbin is right where needs to be. It’s a two-strike count.

Whatcha bet he throws?

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That’s the money pitch folks. Corbin’s smooth delivery hides any intent and Grandal swings helplessly over it.

Take a look at how pretty this thing is:

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Nationals fans will be seeing a lot of that over the next six years.

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Matt Kemp steps up and Corbin starts him away too, missing with a breaking ball.

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He comes back with a nice sinking fastball away that draws a miss from the Dodgers outfielder.

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Corbin comes back with another fastball, also away, for a ball. Corbin loves to pinpoint that outside corner and work it raw.

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Corbin flashes another breaking ball — maybe a slower version of the slider, but don’t hold me to that — but it misses low.

I find this situation particularly interesting. Corbin probably doesn’t want to go back to the slider here for fear of missing and giving Kemp first base. On the same token, Kemp can’t just sit fastball because if gets the slider, he doesn’t have much of a chance to make contact.

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Corbin gives him the fastball and Kemp swings, but it’s just enough off the plate to draw weak contact. That’s a heck of a pitch. Kemp probably wanted the fastball and couldn’t resist, but the spot meant he had little chance of doing damage. If that fastball runs over the plate Kemp might crush it. But it doesn’t.

Now the paradigm flips. Corbin has that ever-valuable second strike. Another fastball located in the same spot probably draws weak contact again. Maybe Kemp lays off and you give him first base, though.

Hmm.

Or, you know. Corbin can do that other thing.

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Folks, that’s a brilliant example of tunneling and sequencing. Again, because Corbin’s delivery is so smooth it’s very hard to tell that previous fastball and this slider apart. Kemp tries to adjust and fend the breaking pitch off, but it’s too good. Major League pitchers, man. Science, art and voodoo.

Down goes the side. Fear the slider.

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Patrick Corbin was an interesting gamble for the Nationals. He’s 29 and coming off easily his best season. As we examined, his value is tied up entirely in one pitch — not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes me wonder how many more times he produces a season like 2018.  One could easily argue that he’s just rounding into form after Tommy John surgery, meaning 2018 wasn’t necessarily a fluke. Corbin developing into the pitcher he is after such an injury is a testament to his skill and work ethic.

The Nats don’t need him to be their best pitcher — or second best, even — and in that case, he makes for a solid fit. I think he’s a safe bet to spin a lot of awesome sliders for years to come.

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This was Ode to a Pitcher, a weekly feature from Adkins on Sports where we break down a brilliant pitching performance. These posts are meant to be informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

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