Tag: Ode To A Pitcher

Ode to a Pitcher: All hail Max Scherzer, modern king of strikeouts

Image result for max scherzer
Max Scherzer ain’t nothin’ to mess with.  ARTURO PARDAVILA III

I was saving this.

Oh, the fun we’ve had in this series. We’ve studied dynamic young aces and masterful hurlers of the past. We’ve seen sizzling fastballs, mind-blowing sliders and pocket-dimension changeups. (You can see them all here.) The best pitchers in the world are wizards from the line of Dumbledore, and yet … there was one pitcher I kept in my back pocket for a few weeks. I was saving him, hoarding him, waiting for the day. Today is that day.

Because … well, he’s a little less wizard and a little more buzzsaw. This isn’t trickery; it’s brute force.

It’s Max Scherzer day.

Scherzer is the best pitcher alive, having taken that “crown” from Clayton Kershaw as the Dodger lefty has declined amid injuries. A three-time Cy Young award winner (1 in the American League, 2 in the National League), Scherzer is a hard-throwing strikeout machine with an unorthodox delivery and an aggressive approach on the mound. He pitches like Liam Neeson in Taken. He’s basically my baseball fever dream come to life and a true gift to all who trade in baseball gifs.

Scherzer has led the league in strikeouts the last three seasons, including a sizzling 300 in 220 innings in 2018 — this in his age-33 season. He’s sat down at least 240 every year since 2014. You’ll be shocked to learn his fastball is probably the best of its kind in the sport. Take a look:

  • The spin rate on Scherzer’s fastball ranks in the 94th percentile (!!!)
  • Hitters missed 30.4% of the swings they took against it — note that he threw it almost 1750 times
  • Hitters produced a terrible .198 batting average and a putrid .248 wOBA against it

Yeah, so it’s good. We’ll see this in clear detail in today’s Ode to a Pitcher. Scherzer’s heater tips the scales in each at-bat and allows him to work aggressively regardless of the count. For example, a pitcher throwing a fastball in a 3-0 count is considered at a disadvantage — the hitter knows what is coming because no pitcher likes allowing free baserunners — and Major League hitters armed with that intel fare quite well.

But when you take Scherzer’s fastball — with its mid-90s velocity and incredible spin — that advantage is reduced. Then we remember he has a brutal, late-breaking slider and a darting changeup (tucked so neatly within the release of his fastball that its an act of subterfuge). Yeah. You try hitting this dude.

The Chicago Cubs found themselves in Mad Max’s crosshairs on a Sunday night last season.

***

Scherzer starts right fielder Jason Heyward off with a fastball. Note the late movement on the pitch and the perfect placement, nestled right into the up-and-in edge of the strike zone.

Heyward Pitch 1 FB

Scherzer’s delivery is kinda violent — you’ll get a better look at this as the breakdown rolls on. He finishes toward the plate with a thrust, sending his head down as he hammers the ball to the plate. Not sure many pitching coaches would want their high schoolers to work this way, but alas.

Having watched the fastball near his chest, Heyward is far out in front of Scherzer’s curveball. (Despite the difference in the gifs, Scherzer always takes the ball behind his head during his windup.)

Heyward Pitch 2 Crv SS

See how Scherzer pulls himself glove-side right as he releases the ball? Lots of analysts assumed he’d get hurt at some point, but he’s been a pretty durable pitcher in his career. And dominant. Pitchers are crazy, man.

Look at that sharp, late break on this curveball. My goodness.

Heyward Pitch 2 Slomo

Defending the whole plate against Scherzer is a hell of a task. He can attack you anywhere; where do you focus? What do you sit on?

Having worked up and in and then down in the zone, he comes back near Heyward’s knees to finish the first at-bat.

Oh — and Heyward is down 0-2.

Fastball. Curve. Slider.

Strikeout.

Heyward Pitch 3 SL

Heyward Pitch 3 Slomo

Center fielder Albert Almora Jr steps up, batting from the right side. Scherzer drops a curveball right over the plate for strike one. It’s kind of a hanger — I doubt he was pleased with it.

Almora Pitch 1 CRV

Scherzer comes back with a hard fastball just off the plate away. Almora takes it for a ball. You can already see the way the Nationals ace likes to attack the plate. He has no fear of any zone.

Almora Pitch 2 FB

With the count sitting 1-1, Scherzer attacks Almora a foot lower in the strike zone and forces the young outfielder to hack the fastball foul. Without reading too much into one swing, Almora probably isn’t reading Scherzer well. Who would? That delivery is just something else.

Almora Pitch 3 FB

What do we lament each week? The poor souls facing these baseball-chucking cyborgs in 1-2 counts. In the modern game, aside from maybe deGrom, it doesn’t get more terrifying in said situations than seeing Scherzer’s gangly delivery barreling down at you.

Oh, Albert Almora. You did the best you could. You made your family proud.

Glibness aside, this is a master class. The slider looks exactly the same out of the hand as the fastball that Almora barely knocked foul one pitch before. What’s he supposed to do with this? The pitch dives from shin to ankle in a matter of milliseconds.

Almora Pitch 4 SL

Up next is left fielder Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs first choice for designated hitter should the rule come to the NL. (It should.) Schwarber watches a fastball up and in for ball one.

Schwarber Pitch 1 FB

A mistake: Scherzer throws another fastball but leaves it just enough over the plate to allow a hit. To his credit, Schwarber didn’t try to pull this ball over the wall; he shortened his swing and flicked the ball into center field. As you often hear on broadcasts, that’s a good piece of hitting. It is. If an ace like Scherzer gives you a mistake over the plate, don’t get cute. Take your base.

Schwarber Pitch 2 single

Catcher Willson Contreras steps up with Schwarber on first. He’s zero threat to steal. Scherzer is free and clear to attack without mercy.

Haha. Yeah, as if he needed permission.

That’s a nasty fastball, even if it was a ball.

Contreras Pitch 1 FB

Ever working the zone, Scherzer throws another fastball — but higher, right above the tip of the strike zone. This is the clearest example I can give you of spin rate and velocity. The batter has to be really on this pitch to drive it. Alas, Contreras unloads on it but knocks it foul behind home plate.

Contreras Pitch 2 FB

Man, did Contreras have a chance to plant one in the seats here. This is a flat-out mistake by Scherzer, a flat breaking ball left right in the kill zone for a righty. Contreras just misses and pulls it foul.

Sometimes hitters just miss, same as pitchers. That could be all this was (the Cubs catcher produced a 92 OPS+ last year, so Mike Trout he is not) but I wonder how much the rest of Scherzer’s repertoire plays a role. Are you expecting a fastball? Caught off guard by the difference in speed, even if the pitch was in the zone? It’s not like the breaking stuff isn’t loaded with spin too …

Contreras Pitch 3 crv

Oh, Willson. Now you sit in a two-strike count, facing down a Dark Lord of the Mound, armed in full glory and hungry for another strikeout. Oh, your fate. You saw what happened to Jason Heyward and Albert Almora in similar predicaments. You heard their wails. And now here you are, caught in the same chains.

Did the baseball gods conspire against you, Willson, to be here and now, facing this burden? Do they laugh at your mortal peril, at your impending doom? Will they offer no relief?

No.

They won’t.

They offer instead the crushing boot, a changeup that twists you into a knot and sends you a broken hitter back into your dugout.

Contreras pitch 4 ch

***

My favorite pitcher ever is Mariano Rivera. I don’t hide this. Max Scherzer is darn close though, and perhaps because part of my imagination wants to believe if I had any energy in my right arm I’d pitch like him. Who knows.

Scherzer, entering his mid-30s, hasn’t lost much if anything in his game. Jacob deGrom rightfully won the NL Cy Young, but Scherzer was easily second and figures to be in the running again. That bizarre, violent delivery might someday collect a toll on his right arm, but so far he continues to pile up strikeouts. Even with Stephen Strasburg and the newly signed Patrick Corbin in the Nationals rotation, Scherzer remains the best player on the team and the most consistent and dominant pitcher alive.

Long live Mad Max.

***

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.

Content like this is available to all because of the support of my Patrons. Wish to join them? For as little as $3 a month, you will get early access to content like Ode to a Pitcher sent to your email in advance. Sign up today and support great baseball writing.

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Ode to a Pitcher: Gerrit Cole brings the heat against Boston

Image result for gerrit cole
Gerrit Cole’s first season in Houston was a huge success.

Quick: Gimme the 1-2-3 in strikeouts last season. Can you name them? The first two aren’t much of a shock based on recent history, but the third … well, he’d never been this good before …

Take a minute.

Ok. First and second are Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Future Hall of Famers, Cy Young winners, flame-throwing strikeout-gobbling aces. No surprise. Third?

Gerrit Cole. Yes, Cole had two other seasons with great strikeout numbers, but he never approached third in all of baseball. He was a different guy in 2018, one of the best starters in the sport. How’d he get here, only a few months after being traded away from the team who drafted him with the first pick in the draft?

First, understand: overall, Cole was mostly good with the Pirates but underwhelming considering his early promise. Baseball loves a young, kickass pitcher and Cole fit the bill in 2015: 208 innings pitched, 149 ERA+, 4.6 bWAR at age 24. This set the bar for Cole in Pittsburgh. The sport had found its next Cy Young contender.

Except, well, it hadn’t. Cole got hurt in 2016 and worked his way through two average-ish seasons, throwing 319 combined innings to the tune of a 102 ERA+ in 2016-17. As the Pirates floundered and as Scott Boras, Cole’s agent, saw visions of cash dancing in his eyes, the Bucs shopped their young pitcher. Can’t say I blame them exactly … if the team wasn’t able to straighten him out, they certainly weren’t interested in giving him a big extension.

Finally, Cole ended up in Houston. There’s been some commotion about how exactly this happened — paging Trevor Bauer — but Cole’s spin rate metrics increased basically across the board in 2018, and along with it his effectiveness (under the years, I am giving you spin rate – whiff%):

Pitch 2017 2018
Fastball 2164 – 19.8% 2379 – 29.7%
Slider 2417 – 34.3% 2571 – 36.2%
Curve 2667 – 25.5% 2842 – 33.9%

The fastball — with its combination of high velocity, improved spin rate and vertical movement — became a deadly weapon for Cole in 2018 (as we’re going to see). Because a great fastball is a rising tide that lifts all boats, the improvement of that pitch (despite throwing it slightly less) carried Cole to his best season. The curve got better too, plus Cole deserved credit for cutting his sinker usage about in half, relying instead on his breaking pitches more.

This week’s Ode to a Pitcher will break tradition with the others. Instead of watching an ace bear his teeth and tear through an opposing lineup, we’ll see Cole get into some trouble here in this September start. Facing the eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox, the Astros righthander will work himself into a bit of a jam with some heavy hitters up at the plate.

But don’t worry — we’ll get a glimpse of that excellent fastball — and a dash of spice at the end.

***

We jump to the bottom of the third. The festivities begin with a fastball to Red Sox catcher Sandy Leon. I’m not picking on him here, but did you know Leon finished the 2018 season with a 38 OPS+? 38. I’m sort of at a loss here.

Leon Pitch 1 FB 0-1

Cole follows it up with a nasty curve for a called strike two. Notice the placement.

Leon Pitch 2 KC 0-2

It might not be as perilous as facing Chris Sale when down 0-2, but Cole’s no picnic. Leon spoils a hard fastball to keep the count alive, though.

Leon Pitch 3 FB 0-2 foul

Talk about an emergency hack — but that’s what professional hitters do. Keep the at-bat alive.

Cole comes right back and straightens up the Red Sox backstop.

Leon Pitch 4 1-2 FB inside

Cole comes back with another curve that catches more of the plate than he’d surely like. Leon bounces it foul and the count stays 1-2.

Leon Pitch 5 1-2 KC foul

I love this. Having left Leon just a bit too much ball to work with, Cole moves the curve down and away and punches him out.

Leon Pitch 6 1-3 KC outside K

Beautiful. The break on this is incredible. Note too that Leon has to be ready for the fastball; Cole has worked both sides of the plate with it already. Can’t be sitting on either.

Leon Pitch 6 K slomo

Up next is Jackie Bradley Jr., the light-hitting (92 OPS+) but sweet-gloving centerfielder. Cole greets him with a breaking pitch that misses wide.

JBJ Pitch 1 KB 1-0

Cole comes back with a fastball — notice how catcher Martin Maldonado just wants it up. Bradley looks like he was sitting on it but misses anyway. Velocity + spin rate, kids.

JBJ Pitch 2 FB 0-1

Bradley takes a nasty fastball for a ball. The Astros announcers are incredulous about this call. It’s probably a strike, but alas — the count runs 2-1.

JBJ Pitch 3 FB 2-1

Cole misses down and in with a breaking pitch to run the count 3-1.

JBJ Pitch 4 FB 3-1

Many a rough inning begin with a walk to a batter low in the batting order. Bradley takes the fastball low-and-in and trots down to first, bringing up the eventual AL MVP with a man on.

JBJ Pitch 5 FB 4-1

Shall we take a moment to appreciate Mookie Betts? We shall. The Red Sox rightfielder had such a great season that he poked his head into the rarefied air above the clouds currently reserved for only Mike Trout: 10.9 bWAR, 186 OPS+. Yowza.

Bradley is a threat to steal, mind you, as Betts looks at a curve to start the at-bat.

Betts Pitch 1 KC 0-1

Cole comes up and in with a straighten-you-up fastball that Betts takes for a ball.

Betts Pitch 2 FB 1-1

Cole offers up another fastball, but leaves it enough over the plate for Betts to knock foul.

Betts Pitch 3 FB 1-2 foul

Cole goes back to the curve and Betts rips it down to third baseman Alex Bregman, who handles it OK but was playing too deep to throw the eventual MVP out. If that breaking ball is a hair or two lower, maybe Bregman can throw him out, but who knows. Betts is really fast.

Two on, one out and the Red Sox have some serious hitters coming up.

Betts Pitch 4 KC 1-2 single

Up steps young leftfielder Andrew Benintendi. This isn’t really a double-play situation for Cole; Betts is way too fast unless you manage to do it on the corners. That’s not really a strategy.

Cole starts the lefty with a curve that misses high and away.

Beni Pitch 1 KC 1-0

Cole leaves a curve (maybe a changeup?) over the plate and Benintendi lofts it out to left field for the second out. Cole left the pitch over the plate and Benintendi just didn’t quite get ahold of it. Is that Cole getting lucky? I’m not sure. Probably a little, but hitters have to respect that fastball. If the young outfielder expected one here, that might explain the flyout.

Beni Pitch 2 Flyout

Even despite the second out, trouble is knocking at the door in the form of Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez and his 173 OPS+.

Two on. Two great teams. A great slugger against a great flamethrower. There aren’t many cooler scenes in the game than this.

Cole doesn’t disappoint: fastball, strike one. Martinez just misses.

JDM Pitch 1 0-1 K

Cole comes right back to the heater, this time throwing it higher and powering it past Martinez for a swinging strike. What a pitch.

You know the guts it takes to throw this pitch to J.D. freaking Martinez? You miss with it and he deposits it onto someone’s windshield.

JDM Pitch 2 0-2 K FB

Sitting 0-2, Cole has a full set of options. He returns to the fastball but moves it up against Martinez’s hands, who fouls it off. I love that Cole isn’t nibbling here against a hitter who absolutely can hammer even your best stuff, much less your mistake. But alas, Cole brings the best he has. Mano e mano. Fastballs up in the zone.

JDM Pitch 3 0-2 foul FB

Cole wisely changes the eye-level here, surrendering a ball to give the Red Sox DH something to think about. This isn’t nibbling; it’s sequencing. You keep pounding fastballs in the same spot and eventually, you’ll miss and Martinez won’t. This is smart pitching.

JDM Pitch 4 1-2

Also: I didn’t show you this, but Cole stepped off the mound twice before this pitch. Was it just to mess with timing or to keep Betts and Bradley in line? Both. Pitchers attack hitters with more than just the ball.

Cole comes right back with another slider in about the same spot that misses low.

JDM Pitch 5 2-2

Now we’re talking. Before the next pitch is delivered, Martinez asks for time — a little tit-for-tat with what Cole was doing before. It’s all part of the battle.

But now here we are, a 2-2 count. Cole, boasting an excellent fastball, finds himself in a tough at-bat against one of the most dangerous hitters alive with two runners on. A single probably scores both.

What do you do? Martinez hasn’t seen the curve. He’s definitely seen the fastball, and its impact might be boosted by the two sliders that missed down and away.

Cole chooses his best pitch. He brings the heat.

JDM Pitch 6 3-2 K

Inning over.

***

Verlander and Cole form one of the most entertaining pairs in any rotation in the sport for pitching nerds like myself. Both are flame-throwing but also cerebral, using timing, sequencing and of course, tunneling, to present as stiff a challenge as possible.

It’ll be fascinating to see how good Cole can be in 2019. If he maintains or even improves on some of the pitch development he showed last season, he’s a Cy Young candidate and in line for a big payday next winter. If he tails off a little, he’s still an elite pitcher and a great companion for Verlander in the Houston rotation.

 

Ode to a Pitcher: Chris Sale closes out the Dodgers in Game 5

Image result for chris sale game 5
Chris Sale had a rough postseason, but the nastiest lefthander in the sport brought the fire in Game 5 of the 2018 World Series.

What do you think the Dodgers were thinking as Chris Sale trotted out to pitch? Do you think they knew their season was about to end? These are professionals; some of the best hitters alive. Surely they had confidence. But was that confidence dimmed, even if just a bit, by Sale’s emergence from the bullpen and not Craig Kimbrel’s? Neither man had been lights out in the postseason, but a hard-throwing strikeout machine of a starter letting loose for one inning conjures memories of Randy Johnson in the World Series.

It’s not pretty.

Sure, Sale hadn’t been his full fire-breathing self up to this point in the 2018 postseason — 14.1 innings, 11 hits, 8 walks, 21 strikeouts, 4.40 ERA. He missed a chunk of the regular season and his velocity wasn’t the same after returning. He was, perhaps, a tad vulnerable.

But make no mistake, Sale is nasty on a level few other pitchers can approach. His strikeout rate in 2018 was 38.4%. Just let that sit in your head for a minute. Oh, and the walks? 5.5%. His HR/FB was only 9.3%. As we know, pitchers truly control strikeouts, walks and home runs; Sale proves his incredible dominance with those numbers. He’s simply unbelievable. On a per-inning basis, he’s probably the best pitcher in the world (with respect to Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer).

So what were they thinking? Were Dave Roberts and his team terrified of the dragon who had flown out of the Boston bullpen? Or was there hope that perhaps Sale would walk the bases loaded or leave a fastball over the plate to Manny Machado with two on?

Sale hadn’t been himself in awhile, but if there was ever a time to turn it on …

The Dodgers will send Justin Turner (151 OPS+), Kiké Hernandez (117 OPS+), and Machado (146 OPS+) up to face Sale. Roberts couldn’t have asked for a better stretch of his lineup to step to the dish.

After all, the World Series is at stake.

***

Sale starts Turner off with a fastball, pinging the glove for a called strike. We’ll watch the command as the outing continues.

Turner Pitch 1 Fastball

That delivery is really something. Endless prospect prognosticators assumed his arm would fly off his body at some point; not without some justification. They were wrong, even if Sale has shown a propensity to fade as the season stretches toward fall. Perhaps that’s the price one pays for breathing fire.

Sale hides the ball quite well and releases it so far toward first base that detecting what’s coming is a hefty challenge. It’s no picnic to face Sale without a handful of reps.

Turner Pitch 2 fastball

Turner handles fastballs pretty well — his wOBA against heaters was an above-average .386 — but Sale keeps it just high enough that the Dodgers third baseman only fouls it off. If that pitch is just a bit lower, it might have been gone.

Turner Pitch 3 fastball

Excellent sequencing pitch. Sale isn’t ready to go offspeed yet, so he moves the fastball up and out of the zone. Turner goes with it and fouls it straight back. Note that Sale missed arm side.

Turner Pitch 4 slider

But that miss made this slider oh so hard to resist. The Red Sox are two outs away.

Kiké steps up and Sale starts him off with a breaking ball.

Kike Pitch 1 Slider

Yep, that’s a bit of a flinch. Picking up the ball from Sale is such a challenge and his slider is so clearly tunneled with his fastball that I’m sure this looked like a ball careening right for his dome. But it wasn’t; it was a breaking ball for a called strike.

Frankly, Sale misses pretty badly here. He got away with one.

Kike Pitch 2 FB

Another miss. After starting off well with Turner, Sale has missed catcher Christian Vasquez’s glove a few times now.

Kike Pitch 3 FB

Vasquez sets up inside; Sale misses up and away.

Kike Pitch 4 FB

Sale missed again, this time badly. If you watch the full clip — I keep them short for the sake of mobile readers — it’s obvious Sale is frustrated. The entire tenor of the inning shifts if a baserunner comes into play.

If you’re a Dodger fan, do you allow yourself a smattering of hope? Sale losing Kiké is a great start on the road to extending the World Series.

One pitch from putting the Dodgers utility man on base.

Kike Pitch 5 FB

Sale comes back with another fastball, but despite the missed location it’s an okay pitch — the camera angle robs us of the movement. Fortunately for Sale, the heater was low enough that Kiké can only fight it off. Full count.

Kike Pitch 6 FB

Sale misses way above the zone but Kiké goes with him, knocking it foul. I can’t say for sure whether this is a sequencing pitch — I doubt Sale and Vasquez would risk the baserunner, but I don’t know — but it serves that purpose wonderfully.

Kike Pitch 7 Slider

That’s about as ugly of a swing as you’ll see. I’m sure there won’t be an uglier one in this outing — nope. No chance.

Kike Pitch 7 Slider Slomo.gif

Look at the movement on that thing. Poor Kiké. That gif is a great slow-motion look at the challenge of picking up what Sale is throwing. You can see the batter realize too late what’s coming and uncurl a hacky swing to try and keep the at-bat alive. It didn’t work.

The Red Sox are one out away.

The Dodgers are circling the drain, but their prized midseason acquisition is up at the plate. Machado is greeted with another excellent slider that he misses.

Machado Pitch 1 SL.gif

Patrick Corbin has a great slider too, but given the velocity and the ridiculous angle he throws it from, Sale might have my favorite in the big leagues.

Machado Pitch 2 FB

Vasquez sets up high and Sale delivers a hard fastball up and away. Machado flicks it foul and is now in the most wretched of all places; down 0-2 versus Chris Sale. Excellent sequencing here too, moving diagonally up through the zone.

Machado Pitch 3 FB

Sale delivers another high fastball that Machado takes for a ball. Here’s the predicament the future Padre is in; do you sit fastball and leave yourself open to the slider? Or the opposite?

It’s a terrible place to be in, staring down a fire-breathing dragon with only a baseball bat.

Machado Pitch 4 SL

No chance.

Manny Machado is an awesome hitter and Chris Sale depantsed him here. That punchout couldn’t have been more dominant, a pitcher fully in control of the at-bat and strike zone, finishing off the batter with a flourish.

Red Sox win.

***

The Red Sox traded quite a bit to acquire Sale, the then-ace of the Chicago White Sox. Such is the reality of acquiring an ace in his prime. Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech were highly-touted prospects, but Sale has been worth the investment — he’s been dominant in Boston (175 ERA+, 13.2 K/9). Those numbers leap off the screen, but in a sports town like Beantown, championships move the needle.

Now Sale has one and the Red Sox have another.

***

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.

Content like this is available to all because of the support of my Patrons. Wish to join them? For as little as $3 a month, you will get early access to content like Ode to a Pitcher sent to your email in advance. Sign up today and support great baseball writing.

 

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

Image result for patrick corbin
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.

***

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

Kike Pitch 1 K 2Seam Away.gif

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.

Kike Pitch 2 K Slider DownIn.gif

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.

Kike Pitch 3 BB Slider Down Away.gif

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

Kike Pitch 4 TwoSeam DownAway STRIKEOUT.gif

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.

Grandal Pitch 1 BB Crv Down Away.gif

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.

Grandal Pitch 2 TwoSeam Down Away.gif

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.

Grandal Pitch 3 Crv UpAway.gif

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.

Grandal Pitch 4 Change Middle.gif

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?

Grandal Pitch 5 Slider Down In.gif

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:

Grandal Slider K Slomo.gif

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

Kemp Pitch 1 Curve down away.gif

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

Kemp Pitch 2 Fastball DownAway.gif

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

Kemp Pitch 3 Fastball away.gif

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

Kemp Pitch 4 Curve Down In.gif

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.

Kemp Pitch 5 Fastball away.gif

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.

Kemp Pitch 6 Slider Down Mid.gif

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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