Patrick Corbin Desperately Needs to Bounce Back
Today, Patrick Corbin had a rough start. The Braves star-studded lineup found their way on base 11 times, and scored 4 times, later tagging Kyle Finnegan for 3 more. Corbin's day ended before he could record an out in the 4th inning. Corbin takes the loss as the Nationals begin the 2023 season 0-1. Corbin's ERA is now at 6.00, a figure partially salvaged due to a pair of unearned runs. That's merciful considering how outmatched he looked against Atlanta.
Sadly that's not too surprising. He's been one of the most talked-about Nationals in recent times, and not for the right reasons. Some are predicting a bounce back for Corbin, including some of us here. That makes sense because, well, it can't get a whole lot worse. It would be great for Patrick and the Nationals if that happened, and it could mean the end of his MLB career if it doesn't happen. Let's talk about what that bounce back might look like.
Fair warning: I'm going to say some unsavory things about Patrick Corbin and his performance as a National. If you prefer to forget about the past two painful seasons, you may want to cover your eyes. The truth is that Patrick Corbin has been the #1 worst pitcher in MLB over the past three seasons, and it's not even close. Corbin, at ages 30 to 32, has the worst ERA of anybody with 50 or more starts in the past three seasons with a horrid 5.82 mark, and he laps the field in losses accumulated in that span with 42 losing decisions over 73 starts. Second place in that span is just 30 losses. It's probably fair to expect Corbin to continue being league-worst, as he's only just now entering what would typically be the decline phase of a player's career.
It's been a truly awful stretch of play for the once-great lefty. Corbin has crashed and burned hard in a confounding disappearance of effectiveness. There's more to it that than, though. Corbin has only had the opportunity to lose those 42 games because of his excellent performance in the years immediately preceding this extended nightmare. Corbin broke out in a major way a few short years ago in 2018, with a dominant season for the Diamondbacks leading to a 5th place Cy Young finish. You may recall his 2019 season, the first of a 6-year, $140 million contract. He dominated once again, continuing his strong performance in the playoffs where he was running on fumes but played a critical role in game seven of the World Series. To me, that alone is worth $140 million of the Lerner's money.
All this context leaves us in a strange place. Corbin was dominant, a champion, and relatively recently, too. In the second year of a massive contract, he became terrible, and the team around him became terrible in turn. In the past three years, he has still pitched every week. He has still stood atop the hill, standing six feet and four inches, throwing tens of pitches towards the plate. Observing Corbin from the bleachers you can still see a firm fastball and a breaking slider. Sometimes he will still pick up a few strikeouts, and even more rarely he will put together a quality start. Corbin hasn't gone anywhere, unlike so many of his champion teammates. But if you look closely enough, you can see in his eyes a certain sadness. The champion he once was is gone.
When we previewed his season in February, we broke down the reasons for his recent poor performance. His fastball is worse, his slider is way worse, he gets hit harder, he is barely hanging on to his roster spot anymore. There's a pretty strong argument that he should have already lost it. His contract, his awful team, and small blips of success have created the perfect storm for him to accumulate eye-popping stat totals. 42 losses in two-plus-a-bit seasons is absolutely ridiculous. Maybe back-to-back 200 inning seasons, then the toll of the 2019 playoffs, and then the pandemic lockdown is what affected him. Maybe this was doomed to happen to a pitcher with one good pitch if his main offering declined even a little bit. Maybe he's coasting on his massive contract, but more likely he is trying everything he can but hasn't found Michael's Secret Stuff. Baseball is hard.
Let's not write Corbin off completely, though. After all, his losses and ERA numbers exaggerate his struggles a bit considering his bad team and some rotten luck. I'd ask you to think back to a few of his performances in 2022. Amidst a long summer of blow-ups and barrages against him, he had a few pleasant evenings on the mound. A 8-inning victory against the Pirates with 12 strikeouts was impressive, not many pitchers can put that together, no matter the opponent. A 7-inning, 1-run win in Citi Field against the contending Mets and a similarly solid outing against the Orioles came in September after a season full of struggles, and touched up his final numbers to be slightly less appalling.
These outings displayed a different kind of pitcher than the one we saw opening the season today. It's a pitcher who might not earn Cy Young recognition, but could become, say, a veteran innings-eater type. Someone who could provide at least a little bit of value to a team. Imagine Patrick Corbin, the contact pitcher. Dare I say Patrick Corbin, the crafty lefty? Could he develop another pitch or two this late in his career to reinvent himself? It's certainly not impossible, and that's exactly the kind of thing he desperately needs to figure out. Something even less likely that you may consider is Patrick Corbin, the relief pitcher, but it could be worth a shot, theoretically. If this daydreaming never materializes, Patrick Corbin could be looking at an abrupt end to his professional career.
All stats via FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, and StatHead