Nationals’ Patrick Corbin finds reasons for optimism at spring training


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Patrick Corbin retired the first two batters he faced Tuesday during his first outing of spring training. Then up came St. Louis Cardinals slugger Paul Goldschmidt, the reigning National League MVP and Corbin’s former teammate in Arizona.

The Washington Nationals left-hander fell behind in the count 2-0, then threw a fastball over the plate. Goldschmidt smacked the ball just over the outstretched glove of Victor Robles and into the grass beyond the center field fence. On the next pitch, facing MVP finalist Nolan Arenado, Corbin threw a first-pitch slider that wasn’t down far enough. It flew even farther over Robles’s head.

“Just look at where the pitches were,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We want him to throw the ball down. Both those pitches were up. … For the most part, he’s got to understand that he’s got to get the ball down. Other than that, I thought he threw the ball really well.”

Corbin wasn’t bothered by his first-inning struggles.

“This is still early. We’re going out there and trying to compete, but I know the hitters are still trying to get into it — and so are [the pitchers],” the 33-year-old said. “As long as you come out of it feeling good. Just look at … the positives and not look into it too much. I feel pretty good. I feel healthy. Just continue to try to get better.”

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Corbin allowed four hits in 1⅔ innings of the 5-3 loss, but spring training results are essentially meaningless. Pitchers work on new pitches and sequencing. Hitters tweak their swings and timing. But with Corbin, who is coming off a second straight season in which he led the major leagues in losses, it’s fair to wonder if his spring results may mean at least something.

The Nationals continue to believe Corbin can return to something closer to the pitcher he was in 2019, the first season of his six-year, $140 million contract. Martinez raved about Corbin getting to the team facility early to prepare for this season.

Washington had one of the worst defenses in baseball a year ago, but it improved after shortstop CJ Abrams joined the roster in August and Luis García moved to second base. Corbin’s fielding independent pitching — which is similar to ERA but measures a pitcher’s effectiveness based on the events he can control — was 4.84. When a pitcher’s FIP is lower than his ERA (Corbin’s was 6.31), that suggests outcomes didn’t go in his favor because of factors such as defensive positioning and where balls were hit. That’s not to say Corbin will become a top-of-the rotation arm again, but he could be due an upgrade from last season’s struggles.

Corbin believes he has made mechanical tweaks that can get him back to his former self. He thinks he developed some bad habits during the long layoff in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. When his velocity wasn’t where he expected it to be, he changed his arm slot to compensate. He has struggled to find the correct arm slot since but worked this offseason on repeating his delivery.

“I thought [my arm slot was] pretty good on some of the swings and misses I had,” he said Tuesday. “I think [I was] a little excited — maybe a couple of fastballs were up. But the off-speed played well. To be up to 94 [mph] is really good for me. … I’m excited about that.”

Corbin essentially has nowhere to go but up. By many metrics, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball last season for the second straight year. He surrendered 210 hits, most in the majors. He allowed 107 earned runs, most in the majors. His ERA keeps going in the wrong direction; since he was a 2018 all-star for the Diamondbacks, his ERA has gone from 3.15 to 3.25 to 4.66 to 5.82 to 6.31. The only positive was that he made 31 starts for a second straight season.

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Batters last season whiffed on his slider, which was his best pitch at his peak, just 36.9 percent of the time; they swung and missed 51.4 percent of the time in 2019. That championship season, his strikeout rate was 28.5 percent; it was 18 percent last year. Batters hit at least .300 against each of his pitches in 2022, according to Baseball Savant.

Last season, the Nationals’ rotation had by far the worst ERA in baseball. This season, they expect to be better. Youngsters Cade Cavalli, Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore are expected to take steps forward. Trevor Williams is set to be an experienced, back-of-the-rotation arm. If Corbin can find a formula for success, it would be a welcome development. He’s eager to show he can.

“I know I can still go out there and be the pitcher that I was, and I’m as confident as I’ve ever been,” he said. “A lot of ups and downs — you learn from them [and] you try to get better.”

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