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How can the Washington Nationals salvage the Patrick Corbin contract?

After signing a 6-year/$140 million contract with the Nationals, Patrick Corbin had a terrific year that culminated in a brilliant performance out of the bullpen in Game 7 of the 2019 World Series. Since then, it’s all been downhill.

MLB: Washington Nationals at New York Mets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

When the Washington Nationals signed Patrick Corbin to a six-year deal back in December 2018, it was met with mixed reviews. From 2012-2017, Corbin established himself as a solid middle of the rotation starter for most of his career with the Diamondbacks. In fact, one could say that, given a few circumstances we’ll go into in a bit, he was a tad better than that. Over that span, Corbin posted a 4.11 ERA, a 1.35 WHIP, and 651 strikeouts (7.86 K/9) in 745.2 innings.

Are those front of the rotation numbers? Of course not. They’re pretty darned good though considering that Corbin called one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the league home. They may be even more impressive with the knowledge that Corbin had Tommy John surgery after his breakout season in 2013. While he came back fairly strong in the second half of 2015, he had a miserable 2016 campaign that actually saw him demoted to the bullpen for August and September. Between 2012 and 2017, Corbin had two seasons of 3.0 or higher fWAR and two seasons of 2.6 or higher rWAR.

The reason that it’s important to look back on Patrick Corbin’s career before 2018 is because we need a baseline to compare his ridiculous 2018 season to. In 2018, his age 28 season, Corbin went from being a solid middle of the rotation arm to one of the very best starting pitchers in baseball. Corbin finished fifth in pitcher fWAR that season, behind Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Gerrit Cole. They say timing is everything; Corbin’s was impeccable.

He hit the free agent market coming off of a season in which he posted career bests in ERA (3.15), strikeouts (246), Strikeouts/9 IP (11.07, 2.62 K/9 higher than his previous best season), and Home Runs/9 IP (0.68). Corbin also hit the 200 inning mark for just the second time in his career, showing that he’d put the Tommy John surgery in the rearview and that durability was not a concern.

He parlayed that 2018 season into a massive six-year, $140 million back-loaded deal with the Nationals that offseason. Nearly three years into that deal, as the Nationals find themselves rebuilding and Corbin is suffering through the worst season of his career, there’s a reason that “back-loaded” has been typed in bold. Barring a complete 180 degree turn in his performance, Corbin’s deal has become an albatross that will be difficult to move if the Nationals decide to pursue that route. He’s due $83.25 million over the final three years of the contract, an average annual value (AAV) of $27.75 million (the AAV of the total deal was $23.3 million).

The structure of this deal was set up to help keep the Nationals below the luxury tax threshold in Corbin’s first couple of seasons. They paid him just under $13 million in year one and around $19.5 million in year two. Corbin will be paid close to his AAV ($23.4 million in 2022, $24.4 million in 2023) before that final season kicks in at $35.4 million! Around the trade deadline, some in the fanbase were clamoring for the Nationals to trade Patrick Corbin for whatever they could get, but $83.25 million over three years is going to be difficult to move for any player, much less one performing as Corbin has this season... even if the Lerners agreed to eat a significant portion of that deal.

Instead, it would seem that the Nationals are stuck with Corbin’s deal for the next few seasons, for better or worse. In that case, they’re going to have to find ways to maximize his value. Perhaps if he does turn things around in 2022 and/or 2023, he’ll accrue enough trade value so that the Nationals can move him to a contending team at the trade deadline. Given his contract, the Nats would likely need to eat a significant portion of his remaining salary in order to get anything in return.

How can the Nationals maximize Corbin’s value?

Corbin has shown flashes of brilliance since he came to Washington. His 2019 performance did drop off a bit after his career year in 2018, but he still had a really good regular season. He went from being the fifth best starter in terms of fWAR in 2018 to being the fourteenth best in his first season with the Nats. That’s still a borderline ace, even if he was the third best pitcher on his own team. Corbin’s 3.25 ERA, 10.60 Strikeouts/9 IP, and 202 innings were all the second best numbers he’s had in the categories in his career. His 135 ERA+ was actually a career best.

After the strong regular season, Corbin’s 2019 postseason was a little up and down. He was decent in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, but walked five and got hung with a loss despite allowing just 2 runs in 6 innings. His first relief appearance of the postseason saw him cough up 6 runs in just 0.2 innings of work. While Corbin’s other two starts of the postseason were pretty average, he did tremendous work in relief the rest of the way, including three shutout innings that gave the Nats a chance to come back and win Game 7 of the World Series in Houston. He was the winning pitcher that night, and that performance alone will make all six years and $140 million of the Lerners’ money worth it no matter how the rest of this contract plays out.

Let’s take you to Corbin’s Fangraphs page for some visuals on how the past couple of seasons have gone. The short answer is that he’s had the two worst seasons of his career, and the trends are troubling. Let’s take a look at the two big takeaways from the Dashboard.

  1. Corbin’s strikeout rate has taken a massive hit in each of the past two seasons. In his two great seasons, Corbin’s K/9 was over 10.00. In 2020, that dropped to 8.22. That’s a bit below his career average (8.69), but that career average is propped up a bit by the two outlying seasons. It’s in line with the pitcher that he was from 2012-2017. In 2021, however, his strikeout rate has cratered. His current 7.01 K/9 IP is a career low. In fact, the only other time that he finished a season below 7.50 was his rookie year in 2012. There are positives here, as he’s struck out a batter an inning in his past two starts. Maybe he can build on that a bit.
  2. Corbin’s Home Run Rate has spiked. While you’re on the page, if you’ll look at the HR/9 Corbin allowed in his worst season with the Diamondbacks (2016), you’ll notice that his HR/9 was one of the big problems there as well. His 1.37 HR/9 in 2020 was the second worst ratio of his career at the time. It’s now third, as he’s allowed an absurd 1.99 HR/9 innings thus far in 2021. His HR/FB rate (22.0%) is a little out of whack. This could indicate some bad luck, but it could also be related to the fact that Corbin has allowed a 40.2% hard hit rate, up 4.7 points from his peak year in 2018 and 1.7 points from his first year in DC. It’s 4 points lower than it was last season, though.

If a pitcher is striking out fewer hitters than ever before and they’re allowing more home runs than they typically allow, it’s probably going to be a bit of a recipe for disaster. There could be one more nail to hammer into the coffin of Corbin’s past two seasons though. He’s always been a ground ball pitcher, maintaining a 1.62 Ground ball to Fly ball rate in his career. Prior to signing with the Nats, Corbin had never had a season where he finished with a GB/FB rate of lower than 1.47. In his final three seasons with the Diamondbacks, Corbin finished with a GB/FB of 1.71 or higher in each season. Last season, Corbin finished with a 1.42 GB/FB rate, the lowest of his career. This season, it currently sits at 1.43. So....

Less Strikeouts + A Higher Percentage of Fly Balls Than Usual X A Career Worst HR/FB% = A High HR/9 And A Pretty Miserable Season

But Wait... There’s More

Corbin’s past two starts were what inspired me to write about him today. In each of his past two starts, he’s been magnificent in his first two turns through the opposing order.

  • August 3: 7.0 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 8 K, 4 R, 3 HR - Corbin was cruising in this game. He allowed a leadoff homer to Jean Segura before dominating for the next six innings. He came back out for the seventh inning, which went HR-BB-HR to begin the inning. He did retire three of the final four hitters in the inning, allowing a single to opposing pitcher Zack Wheeler. The Nats went on to lose 5-4.
  • August 8: 6.0 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 5 K, 5 R, 2 HR - Corbin was, once again, having a pretty good day. He struck out five through his first five innings, allowing just three hits, including a 2-run homer to leadoff man Ozzie Albies. He seemed to be in control until the sixth, when he walked the leadoff man. After a couple of sharp groundouts, Austin Riley smoked a double and Adam Duvall blasted a two-run homer.

As analytics become more and more prevalent in the game of baseball, even casual fans are familiar with terms like the “Times Through the Order Penalty.” The theory is that after hitters have seen how a pitcher is attacking them, they’re more likely to have success if they face that pitcher again. Many good starters can counter that by varying how they’re attacking hitters as they face the order a second and third time. This is one of the reasons that many pitchers who seem to primarily focus on one or two of their pitches (think newly acquired National Mason Thompson, who has thrown his fastball 97% of the time in his handful of big league appearances) end up in the bullpen. 97 MPH cheese with good movement is tough to pick up on, but MLB hitters will adjust to that the second time through the order if that’s all you have to offer. Anyway, let’s get back to Corbin.

Let’s take you to Corbin’s Splits page, which is going to tell us an unfortunate story. We’ll just look at the triple slash (Average/On-Base Percentage/Slugging) as well as the Weighted On-Base Average for 2021.

  • 1st time through the order: .256/.340/.436, .335 wOBA
  • 2nd time through the order: .265/.301/.465, .327 wOBA
  • 3rd time through the order: .342/.387/.675, .443 wOBA

After he has turned over the lineup twice and is facing it for the third time, Patrick Corbin is allowing a .675 Slugging Percentage. For reference, exactly one player has had a career Slugging Percentage of higher than .675 (Babe Ruth, .690). No other player in the history of the game has finished with a career Slugging Percentage of above .634 (Ted Williams). So, when Corbin is facing a lineup for the third time this season, opponents are slugging at a near Ruthian level. The 1.062 OPS isn’t quite as bad. There are three MLB players (Ruth, Williams, and Lou Gehrig) who have a career OPS that good. Barry Bonds fell just short.

Corbin’s 2020 performance the third time through the order (.377/.407/.494, .386 wOBA) wasn’t quite as bad as it has been this season, but it was still abysmal. He has shown an ability to handle teams multiple times through the order in the past though. In 2019, his best turn through the order was the third time through, as he limited opponents to a .218/.303/.317 line with a .274 wOBA. From 2012-2018, there was some fluctuation with Corbin as he faced the lineup the third time. He’d have the occasional season where he’d actually be better (like 2019) as the game wore on. He’d have other seasons where he’d struggle a little bit more the third time through the order than he did the first two times, but it was never at anywhere near the level it’s been the past two seasons.

Why is he struggling the third time through the order?

There could be a lot of variables. Fatigue could be a factor, though it certainly shouldn’t have been in Sunday’s loss to the Braves. He threw just 68 pitches. The bigger issue seems to be what was brought up above when I mentioned Mason Thompson (primarily a starter in the Padres’ system through 2019) moving to the bullpen. Corbin isn’t using his secondary pitches enough.

Corbin has relied predominantly on two fastballs (a four seamer and a sinking two-seamer) and a slider throughout his career. He does also have a curveball and a changeup in his locker, though neither are as refined as his sinker or slider. Let’s take you back to Corbin’s Fangraphs page and scroll down to Pitch Type, where we’ll see what could be a significant part of the problem.

  • Corbin has thrown his fastball 56.6% of the time this season. This is the highest (by nearly 3 points) that it has been since 2016. Corbin had some good stretches early on in his career, but he really seemed to make the jump from decent to borderline elite when he started relying on his other pitches more often in 2017.
  • The 36.9% slider usage is in line with his first year in D.C., but it’s down 4.4 points from his career year in 2018. The slider is Corbin’s best offering, so you’d like to see him using it a little more often than that.
  • Here’s where we start to see the real problems, unfortunately. Corbin has moved away from the curveball since he came to the Nats. In 2018, the curveball was the pitch that he added to his arsenal. He threw it 9.0% of the time as he had a career year. In his three years with the Nats, Corbin has thrown his curveball 3.6% (2019), 2.1% (2020), and 1.2% (2021) of the time.
  • Unlike the curveball, Corbin has always thrown a changeup. Over his first five seasons, Corbin threw it 8 to 10% of the time. He scrapped it a bit in 2018 as he started using his curveball more often. Since coming to the Nats, he’s gone back to the changeup, but isn’t using it nearly as often as he did earlier in his career. In 2019, he used his changeup 5.8% of the time; in 2020, 5.7%; in 2021, he’s used his changeup just 4.9% of the time.
  • From 2012-2019, Corbin threw either his changeup or curveball close to 10% of the time in every season but one. In 2020, that figure dropped to 7.8%. This season, it’s down to 6.1%!

It’s entirely possible that Corbin’s not using the changeup or the curveball as often because he just doesn’t have much of a feel for either of the pitches this season (or last). His curveball has a fairly massive negative value (-9.87 Runs Above Average/100 pitches), and was bad last season as well. His changeup was a decent pitch for him last season (+1.98 RAA), but it hasn’t been as good this year (-4.44). It seems as if Patrick Corbin isn’t mixing anything in with his fastball and slider. Hitters are adjusting to him after seeing him attack them once or twice. If he’s not mixing those other pitches in, he’s getting crushed for it when he attacks them the same way the third time.

It would seem that the Nats are at a crossroads with Corbin. The $83.25 million that they owe him over the next three seasons make him close to untradeable. They have to find a way to maximize that value. Here are a couple of options they could consider.

  1. They can work hard with him over the offseason and in the spring on getting that changeup and/or curveball (at least one of them!) to where it needs to be for him to mix that pitch in about 10% of the time.
  2. They can limit him to 5-6 innings a start and make sure someone is warming up in the bullpen as soon as he turns the opposing lineup over for the second time.

Some of the luck with the HR/FB rate is bound to even out, even if bad luck doesn’t explain the whole problem away. Mixing in a third pitch and/or emptying the tank a bit more knowing he’s not going to face the other lineup a third time may help bring that strikeout rate back up. It’s hard to see Corbin ever regaining the form that he had in 2018 or 2019, but he should still be capable of returning to the middle of the rotation lefty that he was early on in his career. It’s just going to take some work.