At this point, the Patrick Corbin-to-the-Yankees drumbeat has grown defeaning. We first heard Corbin had interest in the New York way back this spring, and as soon as the season ended, the Yankees were presumed favorites. The fit made all the sense in the world; the Yankees had a hole in their rotation, Corbin was from New York, and he hit the free agent market after a career year.
The buzz now is that Corbin would like to have his free agency saga wrapped up early. The Phillies and Nationals are heavily in the mix, but the Yankees remain the favorites, as they should. The connection between the Yankees and Corbin has been so strong for so long simply because Corbin is an entirely sensible target.
First, the 2018 stats on Corbin: 200 innings on the dot, a 3.15 ERA, good for a 147 ERA+, an eye-popping 11.1 K/9 rate against a 2.2 BB/9 rate. He totaled nearly five WAR per Baseball Reference, and was even more valuable according to FanGraphs’ and Baseball Prospectus’ value metrics. At 29, he enters free agency still in his prime. He is the premier starting pitcher on the market.
Of course, Corbin took a huge leap forward last year. He was never quite as dominant prior to 2018, and he has a Tommy John on his record back in 2014. His performance from 2013 to 2017, a 106 ERA+ and 3.95 FIP, was solid, but more befitting a good mid-rotation starter rather than an ace.
That leap forward, however, was propelled by a number of well-documented stylistic changes. Namely, Corbin altered his profile so that he featured his best pitches. Just throwing your best stuff is an intuitive, straightforward change to make, but it’s one that helped morph Corbin into a front-line starter.
Corbin’s calling card has long been his dynamite slider. Last year, Corbin made that slider his go-to pitch in every way. Consider his pitch usage chart over the past three seasons, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
Corbin’s use of breaking pitches peaked last year, while he curtailed his use of his four-seamer and fastball. In introducing a curveball to the mix, Corbin ended up using a breaking pitch about half the time in 2018.
Pitching backwards, rather than relying on his heater, enabled Corbin to keep hitters off-balance and unlock his full potential. According to Baseball Savant, Corbin limited hitters to a minuscule .144 batting average and .242 slugging with his slider. Perhaps his heavy reliance on the slider helped his other pitches too, as Corbin’s wOBA allowed with both his sinker and four-seamer dropped in 2018 when compared to 2017.
Corbin’s ability to flummox hitters with a backward repertoire helps distract from what would otherwise be a very worrisome velocity drop. Brooks Baseball had Corbin’s four-seamer at an average speed of 92.7 mph in 2017. That was down to 91.4 mph in 2018, a noteworthy drop.
Yet Corbin recognized his drop in velocity and adjusted. He made it clear in 2018 that he didn’t need premium velocity to get batters out. His breaking pitches were dominant, and even with depressed velocity, his fastballs improved on a rate basis as well. It’s not a good thing, per se, that Corbin lost velocity, but it shouldn’t be seen as the kind of glaring red flag it would be for someone who relies on a big fastball.
Entering his age-29 season, Corbin profiles as someone with another couple years in his prime before entering his genuine decline phase. At his level of performance, that probably lines him up for a five or six-year deal. The most recent reports suggest six years is Corbin’s goal, and considering the competition for his services, he just might get it.
We have plenty of recent precedent for the kind of contract Corbin should get. Yu Darvish hit the market last year as the best free agent pitcher at age-31 and got six years, $126 million. Jordan Zimmermann from 2015 is another good comp, as he garnered a five-year, $110 million deal at age-30. Johnny Cueto got six years, $130 million with an opt-out two offseasons ago.
The market for frontline starters that don’t reach the level of Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, and the like has settled around five or six years and around $100-$130 million. MLB Trade Rumors predicted six years, $129 million. FanGraphs’ crowd-sourcing pegged Corbin for five years, $100 million. Given the Yankees’ hardly-fathomable cash streams, a nine-figure guarantee for a talented pitcher in his prime should be a no-brainer.
Corbin is good, he fits the Yankees’ rotation like a glove, and the team has money to spend. This has long been the most obvious free agent fit on the market, and the Yankees now just need to get it done. If the rumors are true, we won’t have to wait long to see the conclusion to this story. Let’s hope it ends with another good player in pinstripes.