D-backs’ Patrick Corbin blossoming into one of baseball’s best storylines

Apr 18, 2018, 2:29 PM | Updated: 3:19 pm
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Patrick Corbin (46) celebrates with teammates after pitching ...
Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Patrick Corbin (46) celebrates with teammates after pitching a complete game, one hit shut-out against the San Francisco Giants during a baseball game, Tuesday, April 17, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The Diamondbacks are great theater. They’ve staged a shirtless streaker on Opening Day. They’ve had home runs robbed by a humidor and a catcher who ran the wrong way on the basepaths. They’ve lost three starters to injury and somehow keep ascending.

Along the way, they’re delivering one of the best stories in baseball. His name is Patrick Corbin.

The left-handed pitcher is morphing from starter to ace, setting the tone for the team’s scintillating start. His one-hitter in Tuesday’s victory over the Giants was one of the memorable pitching performances in team history.

Those in attendance included Randy Johnson, who fastball and ferocity would’ve meant little without that Hall of Fame slider, the same pitch fueling Corbin’s elevation.

And while Corbin might be arriving late, five years after he was destined for stardom, his timing couldn’t be better.

His reign of domination is further validation for the Diamondbacks’ front office, which baffled many observers in the waning days of Spring Training. They handed their Opening Day start to Corbin, passing over Robbie Ray, who some believed to be the team’s real ace.

It was framed as a heartfelt gesture, rewarding a player derailed by Tommy John surgery in 2014, blowing out his arm during his final Cactus League tune-up. Or maybe it was a makeup kiss for not getting the ball during the 2017 playoffs, one of Torey Lovullo’s biggest regrets from that awful series loss to the Dodgers.

Or maybe this was something much different.

Lovullo and general manager Mike Hazen have done many impressive things in their short tenure. Together, they have a great understanding of cold-hearted analytics and the fire that defines competitive spirit.

Maybe they saw Corbin for what he has become – a tremendous talent whose arm is fully recovered, whose confidence needed a boost, whose pitch selection needed a serious adjustment.

Under the new regime, Corbin has dramatically increased the frequency of his slider. Last year, the highest slider rate for starters with at least 100 innings was 44 percent (Tampa’s Chris Archer). In 2018, Corbin’s slider rate has been nearly 50 percent — he’s a pitcher who is leaning hard on his most effective pitch.

The same philosophy applies to Zack Godley, who has been feasting on hitters with heavy deployment of his nasty curveball. Both players have benefited greatly from the Diamondbacks’ advanced intelligence, nuanced decisions that have had a profound effect on the whole.

After seeing the pitch as an opposing player, Gregor Blanco rated Godley’s curveball among the best in baseball, just as Giants players did after flailing away at Corbin’s slider.

This more than the story of analytics and how reliance on the fastball can be fool’s gold in Major League Baseball. This is a cautionary tale for Shelby Miller and the recently-injured Taijuan Walker, proving that recovery from Tommy John surgery generally takes 18 months. But if you’re looking for a return to dominance, it’s more like three years.

Corbin is also proof that the best trades are often the ones you don’t make. The Yankees were reportedly interested in acquiring Corbin over the offseason — New York is his likely destination as a high-priced free agent in the upcoming offseason. The Diamondbacks pulled back, even though Corbin slogged through an erratic season in 2017.

He won 14 games. But there was a time when he’d stand on the mound and stare at his feet, looking uncomfortable and not paying attention to what was going on behind him. There was also a time when he was absolutely electric, stringing together dominant starts at a pivotal point of the season.

But no one expected this.

Corbin handled his Opening Day assignment with calm and poise. He’s held the opponent to one hit in two of his four starts. In his demolition of Los Angeles, he personally had more hits (two) than the Dodgers (one). In his gem against the Giants, Corbin was athletic enough to lay down a bunt in a scoreless game, allowing himself to continue his pursuit of a no-hitter in the bottom of the eighth inning and not be lifted for a pinch-hitter.

In sum, Corbin has been one of the best pitchers in the National League, and one of the best early-season stories in Major League Baseball. Especially on a pitching staff that includes the unexpected struggles of Ray; the age and declining velocity of Zack Greinke; and the ominous injury to Walker.

Corbin is also an accomplished basketball player, able to pull off acrobatic dunks. His athletic versatility is such that Larry Fitzgerald ranks among his biggest fans. But now Corbin is more than the kid athlete who happens to be good at everything.

He’s becoming a great pitcher. And just what the Diamondbacks needed.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.comListen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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D-backs’ Patrick Corbin blossoming into one of baseball’s best storylines