2020, a year of oddities; a series of misfits and misfires, letdowns and disappointments. We had to figure that the ramp up would be difficult for players after Spring Training was halted in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and while many of the modern greats found ways to be effective in a shortened season of 60 games, many other players — good or otherwise — struggled to find their footing.
In a season in which the Washington Nationals underperformed, the list of shortcomings are plentiful, but perhaps most glaring — and problematic — is the inefficiency of lefty starter and massive contract holder Patrick Corbin.
Firstly, Corbin was fine, he just wasn’t worth $24 million, which is what he’s slated to make in 2021, according to Spotrac. For comparison’s sake, Corbin’s 4.66 ERA slotted him in between Cleveland’s Aaron Civale and Boston’s Martin Perez. The former makes around the major league minimum, while the latter had signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Red Sox.
What went on this year that resulted in Corbin’s mediocrity? To start, Corbin experienced issues with velocity — a commonality across Major League Baseball — seeing his fastball velocity fall approximately two miles per hour. That could be the first sign of trouble. He attempted to use his slider slightly more frequently than past years, but not with a ton of success.
Batters swung more frequently (50.1%) against Corbin than they have since 2015, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Batters swung two percent more frequently than in 2019, and made contact nearly 14 percent more often than a season ago.
Meanwhile, he induced swinging strikes four percent less frequently than ‘19.
Lastly, according to Statcast, hard hit percentage against Corbin rose 5.5 percent to go along with a higher average exit velocity (90.7) and average launch angle (11.9).
All of this has likely resulted in the inflated numbers we saw from Corbin over the course of 2020. For example, his WHIP increased from 1.18 in year one with Washington to 1.57 in year two. He also saw his BABIP skyrocket to .362. While it’s true that a really high BABIP is indicative of bad luck, Corbin’s number in conjunction with some of his other data points suggests a potentially troubling trend.
The silver lining here is that his FIP (4.17) was about half a run lower than his ERA and he managed to contribute 1.2 fWAR to the Nationals’ cause. A pessimist sees these numbers as the precursor to a death knell, while an optimist sees them as a byproduct of the situation. In the latter scenario, perhaps it’s true that players all over the league were simply trying to get through this season without injury. In Corbin’s case — and many others — that, along with the quick ramp up once play resumed, could explain a dip in fastball velocity, as well as all the other numbers I discussed.
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Corbin will turn 32 halfway through 2021, an age which usually means your best days are behind you. For that reason, as well as the ones I’ve outlined, it’s unlikely Corbin will meet his past outputs, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective starter. I’m sure he will be. But it might be true that the price tag was too steep for the level of contribution the Nationals will receive.
The Nationals have one of the most expensive rotations in baseball and up to this point, the starters have worked out pretty well for them, namely Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. But with Corbin, that strong streak might’ve run out. Corbin likely won’t go down as an awful signing, but we will likely look back and decide it wasn’t a very wise choice.