The Washington Nationals have already gotten their money’s worth out of the six-year, $140 million contract that they gave to Patrick Corbin before the 2019 season.
In the first season of that deal, Corbin was a huge piece of the team’s pitching staff in the regular season and postseason as the Nationals rallied from 19-31 to win it all in October.
While the World Series documentary rolled its credits after Game 7 and the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, for better or for worse, there were still five more years left on Corbin’s contract in the nation’s capital. And for the most part since 2019, it’s definitely been worse.
Since the start of the shortened 2020 season, the left-hander has posted a 5.82 ERA in 15 starts with 74 strikeouts and 28 walks while surrendering 16 home runs.
And while pitching records aren’t the highly-coveted stat that they once were, Corbin is 2-10 in those 15 starts in the last two years. The two wins in that record were also right at the start of August last year, meaning that he has now lost his last 10 decisions on the mound.
“It’s tough,” Corbin told reporters after his start on Sunday. “It’s been frustrating, but I just got to continue going out there, throwing my bullpens, getting reps as much as I can.
“Physically I feel fine, so yeah, that would be it.”
Despite throwing six shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals in his third start of the season, his struggles resurfaced against the New York Mets on Sunday as he allowed four runs on seven hits and three walks in 4.0 innings while striking out just three batters.
“I think there still were some positives,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters after Corbin’s start against the Mets. “You know the biggest thing when he fell behind, you’ve got to throw a strike and it’s tough.
“When he pitched ahead, it was a different story. For me, he’s got to come out and attack the strike zone. He’s so much better when he’s 0-2, 1-2, on hitters, then his slider plays a lot better.”
“We got to get him back. You think about it — I thought about this before, and I’m not trying to make excuses for him, but he did sit out because of this COVID thing, and he couldn’t really get that much work in. I thought we just got to keep building him up and throwing him out there.”
The key to Corbin’s success has always been his slider. If it’s effective, he can be dominant.
If it’s not working, he’ll generally struggle as his other pitches aren’t up to the same standard.
So far this year though, he’s not been using his slider nearly as much as he has in his career.
According to Statcast, Corbin has only thrown his slider 32.6% of the time this April. That’s the lowest percentage he’s thrown it in any month since 2016.
The main reason that he’s had to move away from using that pitch as frequently as he has previously is because of the lack of swings and misses that it’s generated so far this season.
This season, hitters are swinging and missing on 36.2% of their swings against Corbin’s slider. During the rest of his tenure with the Nationals, that figure is all the way up at 47.9%.
Part of it is down to the velocity, as the 78.3mph average velocity this season is the lowest the pitch has averaged in a season in his career. Part of it is down to poor location, with the pitch creeping out over the plate more this season than it has previously, especially compared to his excellent 2019 season with the Nationals when it was arguably one of the single best pitches in all of baseball.
Decreased velocity and letting it hang in the zone for hitters to crush is a bad combination.
If Corbin can’t get his primary offering close to its best soon, the Nationals may have a tricky decision to make in the coming weeks as the rest of their rotation gets healthy again.
Jon Lester looks poised to make his debut with the team over the weekend or early next week to bring the Nationals back to five in the rotation.
Also, Stephen Strasburg is throwing from 150 feet on flat ground, indicating that he could also return in the not-too-distant future.
Erick Fedde and Joe Ross have both impressed to this point, and if they continue to do so by the time Strasburg is ready to come back, there is a real possibility that Corbin could have pitched his way out of a rotation spot with the team if his ineffectiveness continues.
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.
In that stint, Corbin’s slider generated swings and misses on a remarkable 62.8% of swings by opposing hitters.
Perhaps a similar move with the Nationals while other starters are performing better than him could help him get back on track on the mound and allow him to be successful again.
The Nationals have way too much money invested in Corbin for him to be a permanent fixture in the bullpen. This would likely only be a temporary move until he regains his form.
However, unless Corbin can get back on track in a hurry after a terrible start to the season, it might be the best move for him in the short and long-term to help him build his slider back up into the lethal weapon that it has been over the past few years.