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As the last year of his contract begins, Patrick Corbin is trying something new

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On a sweltering Sunday morning in South Florida, two cameras and a crowd of Washington Nationals employees stood around Patrick Corbin as he held a bare-bones spring training session. sense. He held hundreds of these sessions, many of them on this very mound, and they have long since ceased to be appointments. The 34 year old man has the highest ERA of all qualified starters since the start of the 2020 season. It is in the final season of a six-year series, $140 million contractand he doesn’t seem likely to be part of the Nationals’ brighter future to which he served as a bridge.

But on Sunday, Nationals pitching coach Jim Hickey was there, watching closely, sneaking glances at an iPad between pitches. New pitch strategist Sean Doolittle was there, analyzing alongside receiver Riley Adams and starter MacKenzie Gore, who mimicked handholds and wrist pronation with his water bottle every time Corbin tossed his change toward home. They’re rallying around Corbin this year, not because they’re striving to make improvements more than before, but rather because they’re trying something new.

Corbin spent the offseason training in West Palm Beach with Gore, his obsessively competitive friend and fellow southpaw. Gore has been a disciple of pitch design and detailed mechanical analysis since his years with the San Diego Padres. He makes pilgrimages out of season to Wake Forest Pitching Lab to perfect the intricacies of its mechanics and arsenal. This past offseason, Corbin followed Gore’s lead, although Gore was careful not to put it that way.

“I don’t necessarily know if he’s listening to me,” Gore said. “I think it was just him wanting to be better.”

Gore said he saw Corbin focus on cleaning up the mechanics while trying to recapture what made him successful in the past, uncovering the way his pitches moved and played against each other . He saw Corbin rethink pitch design and put a new emphasis on creativity in his pitch sequencing.

“He always worked hard, but he just explained why things happen and really dove into his pitching. He was able to see things from a different perspective,” Gore said. “It was just fun to watch him. Everyone knows I’m his biggest fan.

The most visible result of Corbin’s efforts is a new cutter, something he tried under the tutelage of Max Scherzer in 2021 but never managed to turn into a reliable weapon. He threw it multiple times last week against the St. Louis Cardinals and even had annual MVP candidate Nolan Arenado cross it for the third strike.

“It’s real,” Gore said, echoing criticism from others on the Nationals’ pitching development staff who have cautioned that Corbin is still very new to the field.

If it’s real, Corbin hopes the pitch will help provide a complement to teams combining fastball and slider know each other so well that he sometimes has difficulty fooling them. Maybe he can throw it in place of a fastball in the usual fastball count. Or maybe he can use that in place of a slider to move around on a righty.

“Maybe throw them one less slider where I can chase that slider in the dirt because that’s what I’m counting on and I know all the hitters know that,” Corbin said. “Just give them something else, maybe they’ll take that (slider) off.”

Corbin said he hopes the cutter, which was around 88 mph on his last outing, will gain a few more mph as he gets more comfortable with it. He’s also trying, as he has in years past, to refine his changeup, another pitch that could help hitters shed their more familiar combinations. Hickey said Corbin’s changeups in his last outing might have been some of the best he’s seen him throw. Corbin said he, Hickey and Doolittle plan to try new throwing sequences during his spring training outings to better organize the changeup.

“It just exhausts other ways of getting hitters out,” Hickey said. “His career, even in 2019, was successful because of the swing-and-miss of the slider. Teams have become more familiar with him, so they see the ball low and let it pass. So the change and especially the cutter play the sink’s game. He no longer has the two-seam, and now he has something happening to righties. It’ll help.”

How much this will help Corbin remains to be seen. Spring training is always filled with optimism. Expecting Corbin – one of the most consistent starting pitchers of the last four years, for better, in terms of innings eaten, and for worse, in terms of runs allowed – to suddenly re-emerge as an ace, would be like hoping for spring training in Florida without rain. It’s possible, of course. But it’s not really a safe bet. Furthermore, Gore, Hickey and manager Dave Martinez made it clear that Corbin did not suddenly flip a switch.

“His mentality has always been exceptional. He was always willing to do anything you asked him,” Hickey said. “He definitely did a bit of DIY. There’s maybe a little more edge there; it is possible that it is because of the contract expiring. But it’s also unfair because he’s not trying harder now than in 2021 or 2022.”

He’s trying something different, though. And the people who know him and his arsenal best seem to think it’s worth watching.

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