What If Patrick Corbin Were a Trendsetter?

To whatever extent people are concerned about the slow free-agent market, it didn’t have any meaningful effect on Patrick Corbin. After his breakout 2018 season with the Diamondbacks, he signed a six-year contract with the Nationals worth $140 million. That value is more than twice as high as the next-biggest free-agent deal, and while two players will eventually blow the Corbin contract out of the water, he did well for himself, considering it wasn’t that long ago that he lost his spot in the rotation.

Think about the lessons one might learn from the Corbin experience. Very generally, one might observe that perseverance pays off. There’s also the understanding that the market pays for ceilings, even in the presence of risk. Corbin is something of a risky pitcher, but he also just pitched like an ace. Teams love that. Can’t get enough of it. And now, think about how Corbin pitched like an ace. There could be a lesson buried in there, as well. And it’s a lesson that, at least in theory, could alter the course of player development. Patrick Corbin might inspire a new trend.

I haven’t thought this all the way through. I haven’t had conversations about this with dozens of pitchers. This is only an idea, and maybe it’s a *bad* idea, but Corbin inspired it, because Corbin did it. There’s no one single reason, of course, why Corbin just pitched as well as he did, but I wrote about one thing a month ago. Most importantly, Corbin stayed healthy throughout. But there was a conspicuous change to his approach. Corbin basically gave up on his ineffective changeup. To take its place, he introduced a slower breaking ball. It was a breaking ball he liked to throw in the zone; it was a breaking ball he liked to throw early in the count.

Certain pitch-trackers identified the new weapon as a curve. There’s nothing unique about a fastball-slider-curveball lefty — you might look at teammate Robbie Ray, or you might look at, oh, I don’t know, Clayton Kershaw. But Corbin’s new pitch was different. It was clearly slower, but in terms of its movement patterns, the slow pitch looked like his regular, dependable, swing-and-miss slider. To put it another way, Corbin didn’t quite throw a new pitch. Rather, he threw a variation of a preexisting pitch. A pitch he liked! A pitch he’d thrown well forever.

What was Corbin’s secret to unlocking the slower breaking ball? Here’s an excerpt from an article by Todd Dybas:

Enter the curveball. In essence, it’s just a slower slider. The speed gap — about nine mph — couples with an arm angle and release point that directly mimics his slider. He doesn’t even change the grip. Corbin just twists his wrist ever so slightly to slow the pitch and change its shape to the plate, providing a heftier vertical break.

And here’s an excerpt from an article by Nick Piecoro:

So that breaking ball – does he call it a curveball? A slow slider?

“I don’t know,” Corbin said. “I don’t really know what it is. It’s the same grip (as the slider). It’s just something else. Sometimes I’ll throw it harder or slower. I just mix speeds with it. It’s like two pitches. When I’m locating my fastball inside, too, it makes that pitch much better.”

I’ll say that this concept isn’t even brand-new. We’ve heard from pitchers like Rich Hill that they like to try to add and subtract from their curveball, so that it’s not always the same pitch every time. Changing speeds. So much of pitching is about changing speeds. But Corbin didn’t wind up throwing his slider on a gradient this season. The slider became two distinct pitches, and both of those excerpts above indicate he didn’t so much as change his grip. There was just a very subtle arm-action adjustment, and Corbin had something that worked in place of a changeup. He had a third pitch to throw to righties. He had the different look he’d been searching for for so long.

Here is an image of Corbin throwing a hard slider at 82 miles per hour:

Here is an image of Corbin throwing a slower slider at 76 miles per hour:

From what we’re able to see, these images are very similar. Now let’s make them move! Here’s Corbin throwing the slider at 82:

And here’s Corbin throwing the slider at 76:

It would be convenient to have a selection of videos from high-speed cameras placed in center field. I don’t have those videos. These videos took long enough to track down. We can’t identify every single little detail. But, we can consider it a given that Corbin is using the same grip for both pitches. We know the pitches move in very similar ways. The slower one just drops more, mostly on account of gravity. The slower one is slowed down by just the slightest little flick of the wrist.

Here’s where I’m trying to get to with this: Corbin had trouble developing a reliable changeup. So, eventually, he came up with a workaround. Robbie Ray also came up with a workaround a few years back, but that was by bringing back a curveball he’d kept in his back pocket. Ray reintroduced a different pitch. Corbin modified his second pitch. He’d always loved his second pitch — the slider had always been his best weapon. We hear so often about how pitchers want to have three pitches, especially if they want to be starters. But guys commonly run into trouble trying to find a good changeup. Guys commonly run into trouble trying to find a good curveball. Among secondary pitches, the slider is king:

Nearly half of all pitchers last season threw a slider at least 20% of the time. Pitch usage is a pretty good proxy for pitch quality, or for pitch confidence. You don’t throw a slider 20% of the time if you don’t think your slider’s any good. There are so many pitchers floating around the minors, or floating around in major-league bullpens, who throw a fastball and a slider. They’re held back by the lack of a third pitch. According to baseball convention, those pitchers try to learn changeups. If that fails, perhaps those pitchers try to learn curveballs. But what if those pitchers were to follow in Corbin’s footsteps? What if some number of fastball/slider pitchers simply tried to throw a second, slower slider?

There’s no guarantee it would work. There’s no guarantee anything would work. Pitching is hard, a lot harder than 2018 Patrick Corbin made it look. But I think the big selling point here is that Corbin kept the same grip, and almost the same arm action. At least intuitively, it seems like it would be easier to modify a slider than to try to learn a changeup or curveball. It all still takes time and repetition, but for a fastball/slider pitcher, the slider grip and release ought to be familiar. Then you just try to learn how to slow it down by 5-10 ticks. It seems to me like a worthwhile experiment, because if we’re going to have this flood of guys showing up throwing sliders like half of the time, they might as well see what else they can do. There’s no shortage of professional pitchers who like to throw sliders. So maybe you start from that foundation, instead of trying to force what’s traditional.

A few weeks ago, Tyson Ross rather quietly signed a contract with the Tigers. Tyson Ross has been pretty good when he’s been able to stay healthy. Health is always priority No. 1. Can’t do much without it. But thinking about Ross for a moment — he’s always leaned very heavily on his slider. At its peak, it was one of the best sliders in baseball. But Ross has never really had a good third pitch. He hasn’t had success with a changeup or cutter. And so lefties have hit him far better than righties. Now, it’s possible, if not probable, that Ross just isn’t going to learn a third weapon. Again, this is all much tougher than it seems when it’s written in a paragraph. But what if Ross attempted a second slider? A slower slider, using the exact same grip? It’s the same grip he’s always trusted. There would just be a little wrist turn at the end. Hardly something to notice. What if it worked? What if it were easier to pick up than a changeup or a cutter?

Everyone’s idea of pitching is different. Everyone’s fingers are different. Some guys eventually learn their third pitches. Sometimes those pitches are great. It’s just that, by way of Patrick Corbin, a light has been shined on another path forward. The changeup is there, if you can learn it. The cutter or curveball is there, if you can learn it. Lots of guys have already learned sliders. They just might not have learned how much can be done with them. Corbin found out. So did his opponents.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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3 years ago

Jack Flaherty for the Cardinals pitches with his 4 seam and slider a lot like this, but from the right side.

Mark Davidson
3 years ago
Reply to  BFR44

But his curveball is pretty different from his slider, at least by the fact that he uses a no-seam knuckle curve grip