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Atlanta Braves facing uphill battle in targeting Patrick Corbin

Sometimes, the stopped clock is right… at least for a minute at a time.  This might be one of those minutes… but it may not matter.

In his press conference last week, Atlanta Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos spoke of getting “value” when spending monies in the free agent market.

This weekend, a number of sports news outlets have been reading from the same script in thinking that they know where to find such value in an available starting pitcher.

All of this comes from Nick Cafardo’s monthly total speculation piece.  As you may recall, we tend to have some disdain in these pages for Cafardo, as his musings seem to be based a lot more on conjecture and a lot less on his contacts in the sport.

Nonetheless, everybody else seems to be reporting this, so we’ll do our duty as well.  Here’s the quote that started this frenzy:

1. Patrick Corbin, LHP, Diamondbacks — Considered the most sought-after pitcher on the market this winter. Corbin will have his pick, but it likely won’t be in Arizona, which is looking to strip payroll and start rebuilding. Corbin is expected to draw a lot of interest from the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, and Braves. The deal likely could be at least five years in the $20 million-$25 million range.

The report was echoed by one from Danny Abriano of SNY.TV, though he quoted Cafardo in the process, so it still isn’t like this is anything other than a speculative report.

That said, let’s try to play the Captain Obvious angle here:

  • Corbin is going to command quite a bit of money
  • The Dodgers, Giants, Yankees, and Braves have a lot of money to spend
  • All of those teams need frontline starting pitching
  • Q.E.D., the speculation is proven

Of course I would also throw in the Phillies, who probably have more cash that they can spend than any of the above teams, but so far Cafardo has forgotten about them.

Of course this time, he might actually be right – the Braves probably should be interested in Corbin.  But they will be far from the only ones involved.

There are few free agent pitchers of his caliber out there this off-season [Note: Clayton Kershaw could opt-out of his LA deal, but if I’m his agent, I advise him to stay the course unless there’s a guaranteed 5 years out there for him – and there could be], but it’s going to be a tough sell for the Braves to turn his head away from New York.

So for now, let’s at least do our due diligence and introduce ourselves to southpaw Patrick Corbin…

 

Life Lessons

Geography isn’t a lot of help when looking at places where Corbin might feel more comfortable playing. He’s from New York – but it’s upstate New York – west of a town named Cicero, which in turn just north of Syracuse and maybe 25 miles from Lake Ontario.

So while that part of the state is light years away from New York City, he’s already on record as having grown up as a fan of the Yankees, and that gravity toward the Bronx is going to be very difficult for him to avoid.

Corbin has also spent time in other diverse places: a stint at Chipola College, located in the panhandle of Florida (pretty much Braves’ Country) plus some additional time in Utica at a Community College near his hometown.

The Angels drafted him in 2009’s 2nd round before they dealt him – and more – to Arizona for Dan Haren Interesting aside: Jerry DiPoto was the interim GM for Arizona for that trade, and ended up in Anaheim later on.

Corbin made the majors in 2012 and had a solid year in 2013… maybe too good. His inning count jumped up to 208 that year (from 160 in 2011 and 186 in 2012) as a 24 year old.

He then spent 2014 watching TV and rehabbing a Tommy John/UCL injury.

 

Progressive Recovery

Upon his return in 2015, things initially looked very good: in 85 innings, he posted a 3.60 ERA with the same kind of velocity on his fastball as he showed prior to surgery (92.4mph vs. 92.1).

However, he hit a speed bump in 2016 as his walk rate jumped up (don’t swoon yet, Braves fans)  to 3.82 – a number that he traditionally had seen in the low-to-mid-2’s. It got to the point that Arizona moved him to the bullpen – which didn’t work that well either, though he finished the year pitching much better.

In 2017 he showed a marked improvement to a 4.03 ERA and made 32 starts, throwing 190 innings. The walk rate came down to 2.89 and his K-rate notched up as well.

That led to 2018’s breakout season: a 200 inning, 3.15 ERA run that included big improvements in both walk rate (down to 2.16) and strikeout rate (rocketing to 11.07).

Yet in the process, Corbin may have done this while throwing slowersupposedly losing 1.6 mph on his best fastball.

There may be some dispute to those figures, though, as data from BrooksBaseball.net suggests that Corbin had a period of time at mid-season in which he dropped to about 90.5 mph, but both began and finished the season up at his more customary 92.5+ mph velocity… with bursts into the mid-90’s.

 

Speed wasn’t the only thing

What did change, though, was Corbin’s pitch mix: he relied less on the fastball (significantly down from 30% to 19.7%) with increased use of breaking pitches… variously described as Sinker, Slider, Cutter, and Curve.

This may, in fact, explain his success in 2018: that hitters can’t tell the difference either. Brooks shows his sinker nearly at the same pace as the 4-seamer and his slider matching his change-up speed.

Others noticed his change in pitch mix as well – early on in the season, in fact. Adding a curve (which had been essentially non-existent before 2018) and reducing the change-up use has left hitters off-stride as they have to guess between speed (90/81/72 mph) and location – 3 pitches that break in foot-sized increments.

No wonder he had a good year.

Now the question is whether this new-found command and new-found pitch recipe will ‘stick’ over the next 5 seasons. With the relative dearth of available starting pitching options on the free agent market, Corbin’s timing is perfect.

With that, some are already thinking about deals ranging in the $100-125 million range over the next 5 years – and I’m leaning strongly toward the high end of that, particularly given suitors that could be involved.

 

Tough Sell

This is where the Braves will run into trouble – having a competitive bid for a pitcher that others will also have high interest in acquiring… while that player is already picturing himself in pinstripes.

At some level, the hope from Atlanta might be that their bid is ‘good enough’ and that Corbin might be willing to take slightly less to become a part of a budding and exciting team.

He’s already seen in teammate Zack Greinke the kind of staff leader that he would be expected to be with the Braves – the older mentor for a young core of up-and-coming starters. It’s now Corbin’s time to do likewise.

That kind of leadership pressure might actually not be present in places like Los Angeles or New York (though there’s more pressure to succeed in both of these cities).  It could simply come down to this:  which city he thinks has the highest upside.

Next: You gotta have a pitching coach, too

The Braves might indeed be that perfect match for him… but he’s going to have to embrace that future and reject the overtures of other clubs – including one that’s already deep in his own DNA.

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