The last sentence of Baseball America’s scouting report of Patrick Corbin after the 2011 season was “He projects as a No. 4 starter.” This isn’t to rag on Baseball America for underselling Corbin’s chances and repeating what most evaluators thought at the time, but rather to point out that he was never a can’t-miss top prospect. He was a No. 12 prospect for the Angels before he was a No. 9 prospect for the Diamondbacks, and he occasionally showed up on the fringes of a league’s top-10 list. He was a lefty who threw in the low 90s with solid-not-stunning breaking balls and command, which is a description that fits about five to 10 players in every system, even the bad systems.
Corbin had to prove himself.
His rookie season was either underwhelming or exactly what should have been expected, depending on your perspective, but his sophomore season was a true breakout. He threw 208 innings and made his first All-Star team, but there’s something darker behind what you see on his Baseball-Reference page. In the first half of that 2013 season, he was 11-1 with a 2.35 ERA; in the second half, he was 3-7 with a 5.19 ERA, and his elbow blew up. It would be 18 months before he pitched again.
Corbin had to prove himself again.
After an encouraging midseason return in 2015, Corbin was abominable in 2016. His walk rate was nearly double his career average, and he posted career-worst marks in almost every statistical category. If there are always a gaggle of lefty prospects like Corbin in every system, there’s a corollary where some of them fly too close to the sun and the left wings made of wax melt. A career path that features a strong season followed by an injury, which is in turn followed by a drop in effectiveness, is not uncommon. With arbitration coming and Corbin getting more expensive, it seemed like he might have to ride the fringes of different rosters for a while.
Corbin had to prove himself like he’d never proved himself before.
And he did. Corbin’s strong 2017 season was underrated, in part because of his home park — his 4.03 ERA was good for a well-above-average 116 ERA+ in Arizona — but it still didn’t prepare us for his 2018. His strikeout rate didn’t just rise; it shot up. After striking out fewer than a batter per inning, he was one of the leaders in strikeout rate for starters. He was tied for the major-league lead in shutouts* and finished fifth in the National League Cy Young vote.
* with, uh, one
Corbin finally proved himself. And he proved himself with excellent timing, peaking right before his free agency. He’s arrived, and he’s an unquestioned ace, the owner of one of the nastiest fastball-slider combinations in baseball.
The question now is this: If you’re a rich owner, just how much do you trust Patrick Corbin with your millions?
It’s a fascinating case. Technically, Corbin has had only three halves of brilliant pitching since 2012. But two of those halves are the most recent evidence we have. His fastball velocity is actually lower than it’s ever been, but his slider velocity is up and its effectiveness is unparalleled. He’s a Tommy John veteran, which either gives you pause about his durability or makes you think he’s gotten a major surgery out of the way. He was one of just 13 pitches to throw 200 innings or more this season, and he’s only 28. But he’s a hard 28, with enough stops and starts to fill up a good chunk of any Wikipedia article.
So do you pay him like an ace for four or five years, like what would have happened in the olden days? Or do you offer him a lot of money up front on a short-term deal and hope that the rest of the league colludes to your line of thinking. Sorry, sorry, I meant “conforms” to your way of thinking. What a strange mistake. I’d change it, but I write all of these out in longhand and send them to an intern to type into the computer, so you understand why I can’t go back.
Which teams would be the ideal fit? Which teams are the likeliest fit?
The likely fit
The New York Yankees have spent an awful lot of time and money building the kind of super bullpen that can power through a postseason. They’ve also spent a lot of time and money building the kind of super lineup that can club enough dingers to give that bullpen a lead. What they haven’t been able to do is build a super rotation, even though it’s not through lack of trying. Both Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray were expensive in different ways, and those investments hint that the Yankees aren’t forsaking the rotation to focus on other strengths. They just haven’t had a ton of luck.
Corbin didn’t allow a lot of home runs in 2018, which is either an omen or a fluke, but he also induces grounders more than the average pitcher, so he might be perfect for Yankee Stadium, unless he isn’t. Hope that clears everything up.
But the overall point is that there is an easily identifiable weakness on the Yankees, who should have a little money to spend. Throughout the history of free agency, that sentence has often been followed by the Yankees using their money to address this weakness with the best available player. I’m not sure if the pattern still applies in this post-George era of relative austerity, but nobody should be surprised if the Yankees do exactly what we’re expecting them to do.
The ideal fit
The perfect fit for a pitcher like Corbin — high risk, incredibly high reward — would be something like this:
- A team either on the fringes of contention or expected to be in the middle of a divisional battle next year
- A team with so many prospects and young contributors that they can realistically expect costs to be low for the next few years
- A team that hasn’t developed starting pitchers with great regularity on their own
The Indians aren’t expecting to be in a divisional battle, and they aren’t expecting costs to be ultra-low. The Rays are okay on the first two points, but they seem to thrive on building pitchers out of sticks and mud.
The team that fits all of the above perfectly, then, would be the Oakland A’s, who did amazing work forging a postseason-qualifying roster out of reboots like Edwin Jackson and Trevor Cahill and surviving injuries that would have devastated other teams. With their young players, they shouldn’t expect to spend a ton of money anytime soon. They won’t have to make an Eric Chavez-like decision on Matt Chapman for several years, and they could really use an unquestioned ace.
It makes a lot of sense. And, yes, I know it won’t actually happen. Just sayin’.
Brewers, five years, $90 million.
I know I used the Brewers as an example of a team that should make a surprise run for Bryce Harper, but this is a far more likely way for them to spend whatever money they have left. The bullpen is in place. The lineup is in place. The rotation is fine enough, sure, but they’ve been after One More Starter for a while now.
Really, Corbin makes sense for just about every team that thinks they can contend in 2019. It takes the right mix of a win-now and money-now team to pay him a lot of money, even though he’s far from a sure thing.
And when he gets that money, do you know what he’ll have to do? Prove himself. Over and over again. It seems exhausting, but Corbin has done a pretty fine job so far.