Corbin Check-up: Is Patrick Corbin Fixed Now?
The Patrick Corbin contract has been a mixed bag for the Nationals franchise. When the team inked Corbin to a $140 million contract, they hoped to strengthen an already strong rotation to boost a contending roster. In the short-term, that plan succeeded as Corbin was invaluable to the Nats' run to the World Series title. However, Corbin suddenly declined and has been, in a word, awful ever since he helped the team hoist the trophy.
After Corbin's rough Opening Day start, I wrote about his struggles and how he needed to bounce back this year to save his career. It's rare for a 33-year-old on such a large contract to be at risk of losing their job, but that's how bad Corbin has looked for the new, basement-dwelling era of Nationals teams. Corbin's future potentially could have already gone the same way as Madison Bumgarner's, who was DFA'd early in the season by the Diamondbacks. Bumgarner is another veteran left-hander on a large multi-year contract who also fell from championship heights to recently put up consecutive seasons with double-digit losses. Of the two, Corbin had been a far worse pitcher, but it is Corbin who is still standing this season.
So, how has Corbin's season gone? After 10 starts, he is 3-5 with a 4.47 ERA in 56.1 innings. Just on those numbers alone, it's clear that Corbin's incredible run of failure from 2020 to 2022 has halted. He is not the worst pitcher in baseball this year! In fact, Corbin is currently in the best stretch of his career post-2019. After exiting with just 3 innings pitched on Opening Day and following that up with a rough start against the Rays, Corbin has been solid in his past eight starts. He's no ace, but he has been solid.
Patrick Corbin has completed at least 6 innings in 7 of his 10 starts this season.
The stat above is enough for Corbin's job to officially be secure, for now. In all of last season, Corbin managed 14 starts of more than 6 innings and 11 starts of fewer than 5 innings. Only once has Corbin exited before 5 complete innings this season. In my previous article, I suggested that Corbin could become a veteran innings-eater type pitcher, and that's exactly what he's been so far. I wouldn't exactly call his performance "crafty", but it he's definitely gotten the job done. Granted, he's still in the bottom half of the starting pitcher pile by most metrics, but he's climbed out of the abyssal, DFA-candidate part of that list.
Here's some stats to explain Corbin's current position. Of 147 pitchers with at least 5 starts this season, Corbin is 103rd in average game score, right above Miles Mikolas and Taijuan Walker. Corbin stands out in his bottom-third cohort, however, because he ranks 25th in MLB in innings pitched. He also has put together six quality starts, only 12 starters in the league have more than six. His ERA+ of 93 indicates that his 4.47 ERA is seven percent below league average, spot-on for his newfound innings-eater label.
So, Patrick Corbin has pitched deeper into games, his ERA has returned to "meh" instead of "apocalyptic", and he's even gone 3-5, which is, well, pitcher wins and losses don't matter, so... that's fine. We can answer the question now, I think: is Patrick Corbin fixed? Yes and no. He's gone from comically bad to perfectly acceptable, which is a huge shift. Peek under the hood, though, and you will realize that not much has changed.
Patrick Corbin is still skating on the thin, thin ice of a low-velo, low-whiff pitching profile. Compared to his last three seasons, his strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate have all dropped, leaving even more of his results up to defense and batted ball luck. That profile plus his impressive accumulation of innings makes it makes sense, then, that Corbin leads MLB in hits allowed. For a pitcher, it's much better to lead the MLB in hits instead of walks or home runs allowed, as you can survive even Corbin's sky-high hit rate with good enough performance in the three true outcomes.
Here's a comparison I would not have previously thought of for Patrick Corbin. Right now, Corbin's statline looks incredibly similar to Zack Greinke's. Greinke is running a K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 of 6.19/1.20/1.55, all of which are right in line with his last two solid seasons of pitching for the Astros and Royals. Corbin sits at 5.43/1.60/1.28 right now, matching late-career Greinke with an almost identical FIP. The standout stat in that number is the walk rate, in which both pitchers rank in the top-10 of 70 qualified pitchers. That has been the biggest key for Corbin's turnaround this season: he's jumped from a league-average walk rate to an elite one.
One last piece of negative spin for Corbin, who I find to be one of the league's most confounding pitchers. It's great that he's looked decent this season, but it's hard to expect him to maintain such a sterling walk rate for the whole season. We've seen him crash and burn too many times in the last three seasons to forget how bad things can get, and if he has a few blow-up starts soon all of these numbers will be irrelevant. It's encouraging that he is capable of pitching like Zack Greinke in an extended stretch, and that type of pitcher can be valuable. If he keeps that up, he can even stick around into his mid-30s and rack up more and more innings. It's not easy to maintain that profile, though, and there's a reason not many Greinke-types exist: Greinke's Cy-young winning career is predicated on otherwordly command, instincts, hard work, and the like.
I predict that Corbin will stay on the roster through the end of the season but will slowly inch down the leaderboards in FIP and innings per start. He's hardly ever been injured, but I might expect him to take a fatigue-related IL stint if he starts getting shelled again. It's not clear if it's even worth keeping Corbin around even if he continues his high-wire act of giving up hard singles and getting out of jams, from the perspective of the franchise's future. While he's still here, we can enjoy his presence as a relic of our championship team, a team that's far in the rearview mirror at this point. While Corbin squeezes out everything left of his slowing fastball and deteriorating slider, we can still sometimes glimpse the pitcher he once was.