Describing a professional competitor as “competitive” is like describing a professional athlete as “athletic” — it must mean the described has a particularly noteworthy measure of the trait.
That — “competitive” — is a word used to describe Patrick Corbin about as frequently as “gritty” is used to describe his team, the Arizona Diamondbacks. Which is to say, Corbin can’t escape the description.
But unlike so many of the buzzwords that surface in sports due to a lack of something to say, “competitive” may be right on the money for Corbin.
On Tuesday, the 23-year-old left-hander shut out the Atlanta Braves in seven innings of work, just 24 hours after the same roster blew out Wade Miley and the Diamondbacks 10-1. In doing so, Corbin improved to 6-0 on the year, his team undefeated in each of his eight starts. His ERA had plunged to 1.52 by the end of his outing; only Matt Harvey (1.44) and Clayton Kershaw — who Corbin out-dueled last month — (1.40) have lower ERAs among Major League starters.
As on Tuesday night, when Corbin walked five Braves batters, needing three double play-inducing groundballs throughout the course of the game to avoid scathe, little, it seems, has been handed to Corbin in sports.
Growing up in upstate New York between two brothers, Daniel Jr. and Kevin, everything was a competition, according to Corbin. “And we never wanted to lose,” he explained. “At anything. None of us. Whether it was — well, anything. That’s just how I grew up.”
Their constant rivalry, he says, fueled the competitive spirit that he now channels when facing big league competition, facing rosters like that of the Braves.
“That feeling of competing is just awesome.”
A multi-sport athlete throughout his youth, playing football for his first two years of high school and starring as a basketball player as an upperclassman at Cicero-North Syracuse High School in Cicero, New York, it wasn’t until his junior year that Corbin commenced his calling as a pitcher. With a little prodding from some of his varsity basketball teammates, he attended his school’s baseball tryouts, though he hadn’t played the sport since he was a little leaguer.
He not only made the team, but he ultimately earned the Northstars’ second starting pitching spot as they headed into the playoffs, going undefeated for the year.
“Pat showed up in the back of our stretching line in his junior year,” Cicero-North head baseball coach Kevin Rockwell recalled in an email earlier this week. “(He was) a 6’3″ skinny left-hander who had great arm action and threw hard but had no idea where it was going. Actually, it took our catcher that year three weeks to learn how to catch him because of his movement.”
“He was extremely coachable and everything you are looking for on and off the field in a high school athlete.”
That year, 2006, Corbin struck out as many as 10 hitters in a seven-inning outing more than once.
A year later, following a successful basketball season as Cicero-North’s starting shooting guard, the lanky Corbin showed glimpses of brilliance as his team’s ace, once striking out 14 in just seven innings, honing his command, upping his velocity, and letting his competitive instinct take over.
“As for his competitiveness,” coach Rockwell said, “off the field, he is one of the nicest kids you are going to meet and he will do anything for you, but when he gets out on the mound he would strike out his mother if he had the chance and (he’d) probably pitch inside. That is just his makeup and another reason why he has been so successful at all levels. It doesn’t matter if he is on the mound in the big leagues or playing your 8 year old in checkers, he is going to try to win.”
Upon graduating, Corbin was headed for Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, New York on a dual-sport scholarship. He thrived both on the court, averaging 15.4 points per game, and from the mound, where he managed an ERA of just 1.87 in 45 innings pitched.
The constant activity — going from shootaround to bullpen session, the foul line to the pitching rubber — kept Corbin’s competitive edge in fine fettle, his athletic potential blossoming all the while.
But, Corbin explained, baseball recognition was hard to come by in upstate New York. And baseball, he began to realize, was probably where he had the best shot at big-time success.
Thus, Corbin had to make what he describes as his “biggest decision” — leaving Mohawk Valley for another junior college in Florida, Chipola College.
“I just needed to get out of (New York) so I could get seen,” he said. “And when I went down there is when I realized, ‘Hey — maybe I can go somewhere in baseball.”
He did, getting drafted by the Angels in the second round of MLB’s 2009 First-Year Player Draft, just two years removed from high school and with only a handful of years pitching under his belt.
A little over a year later, at the 2010 trade deadline the Angels were seeking a bona fide big league frontline starter and they expressed interest in Diamondbacks pitcher Dan Haren. The two teams agreed to a trade that would send Haren to Anaheim and pitchers Joe Saunders, Tyler Skaggs, Rafael Rodriguez and Corbin all to Arizona. At the time, Saunders was the veteran, mid-rotation, innings-eating lefty that the Diamondbacks wanted and the prospect package was just that — prospective, with Skaggs highlighting the group.
After a season and a half in the Diamondbacks’ organization, Corbin — along with Skaggs — finished his 2011 seasons with the Double-A Mobile Bay Bears, posting a respectable 9-8 record to go along with a 4.21 ERA in 160.1 innings pitched. He had some control issues, throwing a team-high 16 wild pitches, but he had more than just that to overcome.
His main obstacle: competition.
Besides fellow former Angels farmhand, Skaggs, Corbin had a host of highly-touted pitching prospect teammates to beat out — guys like Jarrod Parker, Trevor Bauer, Wade Miley and Charles Brewer, guys who all ranked higher in prospect rankings lists than him. Then 21 years old and still largely untapped, Corbin welcomed the challenge.
“I always knew I could come in here and compete with (Bauer and Skaggs),” Corbin said. “They were obviously high picks and got a lot of attention, but I think I knew I had to go out there and prove myself. Every pitcher wants to go out there and be better than the next guy.”
When Diamondbacks pitchers and catchers reported to Salt River Fields last February, Corbin’s intra-organization had been trimmed down, with Parker being traded to the A’s for pitcher Trevor Cahill. A non-roster invitee, he impressed, outperforming all but Miley among the organization’s minor league pitching talent.
And so last season, with Josh Collmenter struggling as the Diamondbacks’ No. 3 starter throughout Spring Training and the first month of the season, the organization looked to tap into their acclaimed pitching depth to replace the right-hander. Along with Corbin, general manager Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks considered both Bauer and Skaggs for the spot.
It was Corbin who got the call up and Collmenter’s spot in the rotation for five turns, before being optioned to Triple-A Reno on May 22, when the Diamondbacks were forced to recall catcher Konrad Schmidt after Miguel Montero sustained a groin injury. In his first five starts as a big leaguer, the left-hander went 2-3 with a 5.27 ERA.
“He’s a guy who likes to go out there and compete every outing,” Montero said of Corbin when discussing his time in the big leagues in 2012. “I noticed that last year, in his first year.”
In three separate stints with the Diamondbacks last season — one, a two-week stretch in the long relief role — Corbin went 6-8 with a 4.54 ERA. In both secondary call-ups, Corbin was praised for his ability to make the adjustments necessary for progression.
A year after his revelatory 2012 camp, Corbin was set to compete against Skaggs for the No. 5 spot in the Diamondbacks’ rotation throughout Spring Training 2013. He won handily and hasn’t looked back.
This season, Corbin hasn’t left a single one of his eight starts without a lead. He has allowed two runs or fewer in each start — all of which have lasted at least six innings, making him the first Diamondbacks pitcher to ever accomplish such a feat. Moreover, after Tuesday’s dominant effort, Corbin joined Randy Johnson as the only other Diamondbacks left-hander to begin a season 6-0. He has beaten lefties Cole Hamels and Clayton Kershaw and, in only the second year of his career, he’s very much en route to representing the Diamondbacks in his home state of New York at the 2013 All Star game.
“This guy’s still developing,” Montero said. “He’s getting better and better and better every time out.”
Though he wasn’t sure who to compare Corbin to, saying he was his own type of pitcher, Montero did offer this when talking about the pitcher’s dominance this year: “I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of years he was the ace.
He’s competitive. He goes out there and he takes care of business. That tells you a lot.”
In the same vein, Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson chimed in on Corbin, “He’s not intimated by any situation. He doesn’t back down or give in.”
Corbin has only corroborated the claims of his coaches and teammates this year, fanning the fire of competition with each pitch. He wields a philosophy that could apply to facing former Cy Young winners like Kershaw, hot-hitting offenses like the Braves, or an 8-year-old in checkers.
“You’ve just got to go out there and compete and never give up,” he says.