Don’t Swallow the FIP

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

In 2020, the Washington Nationals succumbed to one of the worst championship hangovers of all time. They’re on course to finish in last place in the NL East for the fourth year running (though by God, the Mets are going to make them earn it this year!), and while signs of rejuvenation are on the horizon, they are only signs at this point. Since that pandemic-shortened season, Patrick Corbin has existed mostly as a study in contrast, a reminder that the ruins of now used to be the enviable bastion of then. In 2019, Corbin was one of three bona fide front-of-the-rotation starters in Washington, along with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Now, Strasburg is on the IL indefinitely as he recovers from thoracic outlet syndrome. Scherzer is gone. So are Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Hudson, and Sean Doolittle. Victor Robles has been limited to just 36 games this season due to injury. For all intents and purposes, Corbin is the only championship National left.

Last year, Corbin pitched as an act of self-abnegation, posting a 6.31 ERA and leading all of baseball in losses, hits, and earned runs allowed. His name was a metonym for futility.

But right now? Things aren’t that bad.

Corbin is still hanging around the moldy end of the pitching leaderboards this year, but he’s not at the bottom. Out of 59 qualified starters, he’s 51st in ERA and 55th in FIP. But his ERA- is 107, which is merely bad and not disastrous. And over his past nine starts, he’s 4-2 with a 3.86 ERA. How different is the current version of Corbin, who’ll probably end up within a couple tenths of 1.0 WAR on the year, from Kyle Gibson or Dean Kremer, two pitchers who could start a playoff game for the American League’s top seed?

Over the past few months, Corbin has de-emphasized his sinker, which had been his primary fastball for most of his career, and brought his four-seamer up into near-parity:

Giving opponents two fastballs to think about instead of one has done Corbin some good. Corbin has allowed a wOBA under .300 on his fastballs in just four months out of his entire Nationals career. Two of those months are July and August of 2023.

The velocity on Corbin’s pitches is still lackluster, and for the most part so is the movement, even accounting for velocity. But there’s a difference between below-average and disastrous. Last season, Baseball Savant put run grades on more than 2,400 individual pitches. (Spencer Strider’s four-seamer, Brooks Raley’s slider, and so on.) Only 59 pitches graded out as 10 runs below average or worse, of which three belonged to Corbin — the only three pitches he threw more than 10% of the time, in fact. Only one other pitcher, Bryse Wilson, got into negative double digits on more than one pitch.

It wasn’t that long ago that Corbin’s slider was one of the best pitches in the sport. In 2019, it was the sixth-most valuable pitch in baseball, because it was a good pitch and he threw it a lot over a huge workload. Last year, it was the third-least-valuable pitch in baseball, because the quality of the pitch had flipped but the frequency remained about the same.

This year, Corbin is still underwater on three of his four pitches — everything but his sinker — but only by a few runs.

With only one year left on Corbin’s contract, it now seems feasible that he might be useful to a team other than the Nationals. And if he’s liberated from the site of so much misery, put in an organization that knows what to do with him, maybe he’ll become an average big league pitcher again.

Now, there are some reasons for pessimism. First, while his ERA is more than a run and a half lower than it was in 2022, Corbin’s FIP is actually a third of a run higher than last year. His K% has dropped to a career-low 15.4%. The last qualified starters to post an ERA- under 100 with a K% that low were Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland in 2020.

Even during Corbin’s nine-start hot streak, his FIP is 5.15. You could argue that that number is skewed by one seven-walk outing in which he allowed one run, but walking seven in one start is pretty scary no matter the results. Moreover, Corbin has allowed 10 home runs in that time.

Whether Corbin turns a corner or not, the end is growing near.

Following baseball is a comprehensive liberal arts education in and of itself. The physics of spinning a curveball, the biology of replacing an elbow ligament, the economics of navigating free agency. Political science through Curt Flood or Branch Rickey or Kennesaw Mountain Landis, comparative religion through the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, philosophy through Joey Votto. History, enough of it to fill a couple dozen libraries. There’s a whole degree out there to be had if you want it.

Most of all, baseball is about literature and mathematics. I suspect, but cannot prove, that baseball is better-suited to both than football or golf or billiards. Maybe it’s just because baseball, as the oldest major league sport in North America, has been around so long it’s still benefiting from its head start. But I think there’s something baked into the very nature of baseball that lends itself both to quantification and to narrative.

Every action on a baseball field is isolated spatially so as to make it observable, yet linked sequentially with everything that comes before and after. Literature and statistics are both exercises in constructing causality to prove a point. Whether in Shakespeare or symbolic logic, B happens because of or in spite of A.

Baseball, like society, has had its decades-long conflict between metaphysics and mathematics, and the more we’ve learned to quantify, the more the front line has moved. I don’t think the two are incompatible, because they’re tools for answering different questions. Are you out to find verifiable facts, or prove a theory? Or do you want to gaze into a player, or a game, or a concept, and exegete from it some broader capital-T Truth?

Me? I’m as navel-gazey as they get. I like math, I’m good enough at it to do this job, and I’m in awe of what we can accomplish now using these tools. But what I love about baseball is its ability to tear into the rawness of the human experience. The dejection of a pitcher who’s just blown a save, the manic intensity of a manager trying to make an instant risk assessment of walking a batter to get the double play back in order after a stolen base late in a one-run game. The bent face of a player who’s mid-bat toss after a big playoff home run, not knowing what he’s feeling, only that he’s feeling a lot of it.

For that, you need to study images, sounds, videos, written texts. You can’t type “calamity” or “exultation” into the search bar at Baseball Savant. At least not most of the time.

I want to go back to something I mentioned earlier about Corbin’s slider: In 2019, it was the six-most valuable pitch in baseball, and four years later it was the third-least valuable. A difference of 49 runs, which is a huge amount even for a tentpole pitch from a high-volume starter.

Now that’s a number with literary value.

Think about where Corbin was in 2019, what that slider meant to him at the time. That was the pitch that had made him a two-time All-Star and top-five Cy Young finisher with the Diamondbacks. That was the pitch that earned him a six-year, $140 million contract with the Nats in one of the least player-friendly free agent seasons of the 21st century. In Corbin’s first year in Washington, he posted a 3.25 ERA and struck out 238 hitters in 202 innings, and was a pivotal character in the Nats’ unlikely World Series run.

All the attention goes to Soto and Strasburg and so on, but even accounting for a couple ugly postseason outings, the Nationals don’t win that title without Corbin. He swung back and forth from rotation to middle relief, allowing Dave Martinez to work around his near-total lack of a bullpen. Corbin threw 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in Game 5 of the NLDS, keeping Washington in the game long enough to come back off Clayton Kershaw. And in Game 7 of the World Series, with Scherzer compromised by injury, Corbin pitched three more scoreless innings of relief and picked up the win.

Now consider where he was in 2022. The contract that was once his reward for all those great years with Arizona, the contract that allowed him to pitch for a championship team, had now tied him to a 107-loss outfit. The contract had come to define him. There was talk of including Corbin in a Soto trade; Soto was the most valuable player traded in living memory, and some people wanted to use him to get Corbin off the Nationals.

And he still made 31 starts. Apart from a stint on the COVID list in early 2021, Corbin has been on the active roster every day of the regular season dating back to 2015. No matter how bad things got, he was still going out there and doing his job every time through the rotation. And that job hasn’t gotten any easier now that he’s not as good as he used to be, or now that the results don’t matter very much with the Nationals in the tank.

He was still going out there every six days and falling on the weapon that defined him. Sophocles is watching Corbin pitch and pumping his fist.

The tragedy of Corbin is distinct from the tragedy of Strasburg, who was brought low by injury in the wake of his World Series triumph and might never pitch in the majors again, effectively or not. But being forgotten can be a blessing. Corbin’s living out the painful third act of his career in plain sight.

There’s comfort to be found in the knowledge that this will end soon, one way or another. Corbin is about to enter the last year of his contract, which will earn him some $35.4 million in real money but count just $23.3 million against the CBT. This offseason, he’ll be tradeable for the first time in four years, which could lead to a fresh start, or the opportunity to reinvent himself in a new organization. He’s still only 34, for crying out loud.

Even if Corbin ends up playing out the string in Washington, soon he’ll be released from his curse, of being a living reminder that things are worse than they used to be.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Shirtless Bartolo Colon
11 months ago