Washington reportedly signed the best pitcher on the market in Patrick Corbin, who could give the club MLB's top staff heading into 2019. 

By Emma Baccellieri
December 04, 2018

With less than a week until MLB’s Winter Meetings, baseball’s best available pitcher may be off the market: The Nationals have reportedly signed a six-year, $140-million deal with Patrick Corbin, physical pending, as first reported by Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. If the deal goes through, it’ll set up a truly terrifying rotation for Washington and help lay the groundwork for a wild race in the NL East.

Corbin, 29, is coming off the best season of his career. A 3.15 ERA, 137 ERA+ and 11.1 K/9 helped him land in fifth place for the Cy Young. At a glance, there might be fair reason to be skeptical of that recent success. After Tommy John surgery, Corbin missed all of 2014 and half of 2015. His 2016 was lackluster; 2017 was better, but he certainly didn’t seem anything close to elite. Enter his standout performance in 2018. Look a little closer, though, and it doesn’t seem like a fluke. Rather, it marked the arrival of an entirely new approach. Until 2017, Corbin had relied mostly on fastballs. At the beginning of his career, his most frequent pitch was his sinker. Later, it was his four-seamer, but it had always been a heater. In 2017, though, he began depending on his slider. Last year, he relied on it even more—42% of his pitches were sliders, while 20% were four-seam fastballs. In just two seasons, he’d almost totally inverted the composition of his arsenal. Compare to 2016: 40% of his pitches had been four-seamers, 23% had been sliders.

The slider had always been Corbin’s most effective offering. Entering 2018, just about half of its swings had been misses, with an opposing batting average of .161. That’s exactly what you want in an out-pitch, but it’s no easy task to maintain that success when your specialty becomes your bread-and-butter. Corbin didn’t just keep his slider this good when he began using it more, though. He made it better. In 2018, 54% of swings were misses on the slider, and it had an opposing batting average of .148. Using the slider more was just one of several adjustments that he made last year—he also began using a slow curveball, changed his release point, pitched out of the zone more often—but it was perhaps the most consequential.

Corbin’s 2018, then, is proof of an ability to adapt and reason to be hopeful for sustained success ahead. Yes, there’s always risk in a long-term deal for a pitcher, especially one with a history of injury and velocity swings like Corbin. But it sounds like a six-year guarantee is what it took to get him to the table, as he reportedly rejected a five-year deal from the Yankees, and he’s capable of bringing some serious value in the next few seasons. If he repeats his recent performance, Washington is looking at a rotation that could easily be the best in baseball: Corbin will join Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg for a trio of aces. Beyond that, the deal indicates just how serious the club is about contending. The Nationals haven’t wasted any time in upgrading this winter. They built up the bullpen (Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough), fixed last year’s gaping hole at catcher (Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes), and are now adding the best starter on the market. Is Bryce Harper leaving? Very possibly (even with the cash laid out for Corbin, “possibly” still isn’t necessarily “definitely.”). But Washington is continuing to build around a core that’s already strong, and this move can help keep them at the front of the fray.

It’s just the latest move to ensure that the 2019 NL East will be one crazy ride. The Mets’ trade for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz kicked that off, making it clear that they wouldn’t be content to spend another year in fourth place. The Phillies’ deal for Jean Segura—amid rumors that they’d be frontrunners for both Harper and Manny Machado—ratcheted the competition up a notch. The Nationals have just pushed it one step further. The Braves, the reigning division champ, may not have made a move that’s quite as splashy as any of these, but they haven’t been sitting still, either—they begun the winter with a one-year deal for Josh Donaldson. (The Marlins have … removed their cool sculpture in the outfield?) It’s shaping up to be a legitimate four-way race, and Washington’s acquisition of Corbin just might put them in front. For now, at least.

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