This article is a Community Post written by guest contributor Dan McNamara. If you’re interested in writing a guest piece at Pitcher List, send us an email at Community@PitcherList.com
What’s that saying? April showers bring May flowers?
Well, April was anything but stormy for Patrick Corbin. His 36.7% strikeout rate and 4-0 record are clear indicators of that. Instead, it was the dawning of May that cast a cloud of fear and uncertainty over Corbin owners, for on May 3rd, a funny thing happened: Corbin’s fastball velocity dropped… and not by a little. After sitting at 92-93+ mph for his first 6 starts, Corbin’s fastball velocity dropped to 89.71 mph on May 3rd. Owners, analysts, and medical professionals collectively gasped, and the injury speculation ensued, because, after all, Corbin is a Tommy John survivor…
But a funnier thing happened… Corbin still pitched extremely well against the Dodgers that night to the tune of 6IP, 3H, 2BB, 1ER, and 5Ks including 9 whiffs and 27 CSW over his 92 pitches. And since then, Corbin has kept on dominating this season while continuing to sit at 89-90+ mph with his fastball. Why? How? Well, we can only speculate as to the “why”. Perhaps he’s protecting himself from injury? But the “how” has an easy answer…
… Patrick Corbin has DOMINATED right-handed hitters in 2018.
But Dan, lefties…I’ll save you the trouble. Nothing’s really changed, so it doesn’t really matter.
Why wouldn’t it matter? Because lefties only make up about 25% of the at-bats against Corbin from year to year and he’s never really struggled against lefties to begin with. Corbin’s big problem was his ineffectiveness against righties, and he didn’t just figure out how to contain them, he completely turned the table.
So, what’s responsible for this? Well, very simply, it’s Corbin’s repertoire and how he wields it.
But Dan, he’s only a two-pitch pitcher. HA! Incorrect.
I hear you. Fastball, Slider; that’s what we know about Corbin. However, Corbin throws both a four-seamer and sinker and commands them in such a way that he has created a sustainable attack to keep right-handers off-balance. Let’s dive in.
It’s really good.
When facing Corbin as a righty, the odds of seeing a slider with two strikes sit at 64% Well, even knowing that they’re likely to see a slider, they’re still swinging and missing at an incredible 32.2%. Just… wow.
It’s not just two-strike counts though. Overall, Corbin throws his slider about 37% of time against righties, and that swinging strike rate stands at 31.8% for ALL counts. But perhaps the most impressive statistic of all is Corbin’s whiff rate (whiffs per swing) with his slider against righties. It sits at 57.2%. Yes, you’re reading that correctly. When right-handers swing at a Corbin slider, they miss more than half the time. Don’t worry, it blows my mind, too.
Now, according to Statcast, Corbin also throws a curveball, but Craig Edwards of Fangraphs wrote another article last week about Corbin and astutely illustrated that, despite the discrepancy in speed between the two pitches, the movement is nearly identical. So we can essentially interpret the curveball as a variation of his slider
With that joint classification, we can now simplify his 39.4% slider, 10.3% curveball, 29.5% sinker, and 19.4% four-seamer usage rates and lump them into two raw categories: 50% fastballs and 50% sliders.
So how does he have so much success with his slider? By creating this guessing game for the hitter. And it’s not just that the slider is an amazing pitch, but that Corbin can setup the guessing game with the way that he commands his four-seamer and sinker.
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of “Effective Velocity”, I highly recommend checking out this awesome article from Pitcher List’s own Michael Augustine. He goes in depth on the subject and really breaks it down with great detail, but if I can simplify the concept, it would go something like this:
A hitter is always trying to get the barrel of the bat to the ball. In order to do that on an inside pitch, he has to be quicker with his reaction. To do so with an outside pitch, he has to sit back and let the ball get deeper. So even though the pitches could have the same velocity out of the pitcher’s hand, “effectively” the pitches are sped up or slowed down depending on their location. This allows pitchers to create a perceived range of velocities to mess with the timing of a hitter by adding and subtracting with a single pitch. The graphic below is a nice illustration of the added or subtracted effective velocities from the pitcher’s view to a right-handed hitter.
As you can see, you gain more effective velocity the further up and in and lose more the further low and away with the “zero line” being the diagonal on which the effective velocity matches the actual velocity of the pitch.
Corbin has evolved this season to really start taking advantage of this concept, and it’s the foundation that has enabled him to take his slider to a whole new level. After a pretty inconsistent first half of 2017, July 9th marked a turnaround for Corbin where he put out a very usable 3.24 ERA and 1.30 WHIP for the remainder of the season. These are the heatmaps for his sinker (left) and four-seamer (right) usage against right-handers both before and after July 9th 2017.
There is a very clear effort here from Corbin to attack the extremes of the effective velocity spectrum, and in 2018, he’s only improved his command of this skill.
Big deal, Dan. So his fastball changes speed kinda but not really. Well, yea, but check out what it also does for his slider.
Remember, Corbin has basically a 50/50 split between his breaking ball and fastball usage, and because he already commands his slider so brilliantly, the guessing game we talked about earlier can really take proper shape.
This first image shows an at-bat between Corbin and Jordy Mercer. The first pitch of the at-bat is the orange sinker in the area I’ve highlighted; perfectly located at 91 mph (effective 88ish) low and away. The yellow slider in that highlighted area is the pitch that puts Mercer away after Corbin disguises it brilliantly within the same vertical plane.
This second one is an at-bat between Corbin and Elias Diaz. Corbin starts Diaz off with the slider furthest to your right at about 80 mph and then comes up and in with back-to-back fastballs around 89 mph (effective 92ish) that Diaz can’t react to (because of their effective velocities). Once he speeds up Diaz’s bat, he is able to brilliantly disguise a slider that drops gracefully into the same vertical plane with severe depth and a tremendous difference in velocity that Diaz aggressively swings over for strike three.
As you can see in both images, Corbin has developed such elite command for his repertoire that he is able to disguise his slider with both fastballs on either side of the plate. So he has not only mastered the ability to keep right-handers off-balance with the effective velocity of his fastball, but also combined that with his elite slider to put right-handed hitters at his mercy in a literal coin-flip of pitch-recognition.
Does velocity even matter?
Absolutely. Anything you can do to give a hitter less time to react is going to benefit you. Look at the likes of Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, and Justin Verlander. With a bit of research into their fastball usage, you will see a similar execution of effective velocity with 5-10 mph of actual velocity added. We all know how dominant those particular guys are. And even in the case of Patrick Corbin, certain splits between April and the rest of 2018, as pointed out again in Craig Edward’s article, are notable.
Velocity definitely matters, but not having an 80-grade fastball doesn’t erase your potential of being an elite starting pitcher in the majors. I’ve said before that it isn’t the repertoire of a pitcher that makes him great. It is his command of that repertoire and how he implements it that allows him to sustain success, and Patrick Corbin is proving exactly that in his breakout in 2018.
I am curious to see what David Justice would do against Corbin