I have come to the conclusion that I am developing an unhealthy obsession with dissecting how MLB players are mechanically improving from one year to the next. First, it started with Chris Davis, then I covered Adam Wainwright, then came Marco Scutaro, and then Bartolo Colon, and next came Max Scherzer, and now Patrick Corbin is on the lab table.
But the difference with Corbin and all of the preceding dissections, other than probably Colon, is that no one seems to pay much attention to Corbin’s immense success. I generally aim to write articles about players before they become mainstream. But in this case, I am upset that Corbin’s story is not mainstream by now.
It is nearly the All-Star break and the Diamondback ace, who sports a 10-1 record with a 2.40 ERA, has not gotten half of the attention that other young aces like Matt Harvey have gotten. The reason is simple: America has a monster east coast bias. With the possible exception of players in Los Angeles, sports fans generally do not busy themselves with news from the opposite coast.
New York City might be the media capital of the country but I’m from Boston, so I will ignore Harvey and continue to focus on the uncovered gems from the west that matter equally as much. And today, that is Patrick Corbin.
Where did Corbin come from? Last season, in only 17 starts, he finished 6-8 with a 4.54 ERA. That was his first season in the majors and he pitched like it. It’s hard to say that anyone expected his 2013 outburst.
He was part of the Dan Haren trade back in 2010, which at the time, did not look to promising for Arizona. Corbin was not pinned by experts to come close to being an ace, but rather more of a back-end rotation guy. After his first season in the MLB the experts looked to be right.
But Corbin has proved them all wrong. There are two major discrepancies between last season and this season, which could prove to be the explanation as to why Corbin has dominated. His first pitch strike percentage Air Jordan glided from 58 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2013. For every age, that is important, but for young pitchers, throwing first pitch strikes is monumental.
That gives them the confidence that they can get any hitter out. 70 percent of the batters he faces are down 0-1 right away. That gives him a monstrous advantage. Why doesn’t every pitcher employ this strategy, you ask? Well, some are not able to hit their spots in the strike zone preventing hitters from getting good wood on it and others simply do not have good enough control to throw that many strikes, period.
There are a great number of pitchers who over think the game, but throwing a first pitch strike is the easiest way to get ahead on the mound. But getting hitters behind 0-1 in the count cannot explain his massive improvement alone. The other factor is his unhittable slider.
Check out this .gif that the wonderful fangraphs.com made of Corbin’s slider. The ball looks like a wiffleball gliding through the air before instantly getting buried into the dirt. He is throwing his slider 4.2 percent more often than last season and it has gained 0.8 MPH in that same span.
But the biggest reason for Corbin’s more successful slider is placement. Last season, Corbin’s slider was left over the plate much more often, but this season, he has let it hit the outside corners more frequently even if they aren’t in the strike zone. And why do you think hitters are continuing to swing at these sliders that are out of the strike zone?
Because they are continuously behind in the count which forces their strike zone to become a bit more increased. So when a slider that is virtually unhittable glosses the plate for a split second, hitters feel impelled to swing at it, usually coming up short.
The other thing is that Corbin has been able to throw his slider in dominant fashion against both lefties and righties. You already saw his slider against a lefty in the above .gif, but now check out another brought to you again by fangraphs.com against a righty. It is the same pitch, but they are thrown in completely different zones when the hitter moves from one batter’s box to the other. To a righty he starts the slider far off the plate so that it can catch the outside part of strike zone.
That is what can account for the righty’s hesitation in the .gif. He does not know if the ball is going to hit the outside corner and fortunately for Corbin he does not make a decision in time, but rather flails a half swing at the ball.
With a continuing command of his slider, there is no telling what kind of pitcher Corbin, who is only 23, can become. It will be difficult to maintain his dominant slider and therefore, dominant numbers, but it would be hard to argue that an extreme regression will ensue in the second half of the season.
Somewhere down the road, with the help of scouting tape, hitters are going to be able to decipher when his slider is coming and will swing at it less and less. What determines Corbin’s future success is how he combats that adjustment with one of his own.
He may not be talked about enough as of July, but if he is able to continue his nearly flawless pitching throughout the rest of the season, then he will give us east coast biased fans something to talk about.
By: Matt Levine