When Major League Baseball front offices began looking forward to the 2018-2019 free-agent mega-class in spring training, Patrick Corbin appeared to rank well down the list of potentially available left-handed starters.
Clayton Kershaw and David Price both have a window to exercise contract opt-outs this winter. Dallas Keuchel began preparing for free agency when he hired Scott Boras as his new agent a few months ago. Gio Gonzalez finished sixth in National League Cy Young Award balloting last season, and Drew Pomeranz went 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA and a strikeout per inning in the always-demanding American League East.
Then there was Corbin, a former second-round pick who has endured some rough patches in parts of six seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014, went 645 days between appearances, spent some time in the bullpen and posted a 5-13 record with a 5.15 ERA in 2016.
But Corbin's April numbers and all those funky swings he's generating have quickly raised his profile. He has outpitched All-Star teammates Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray this month and elevated himself from the periphery to the heart of the conversation.
Five starts and 33⅓ innings into the season, Corbin is looking like a pitcher with staying power. And with that, most likely, comes earning power.
"I think it's more than a hot start," said Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo. "You see the reaction of hitters and you see the swings, and it's been very consistent for just about every one of his starts. He's had a tough road and it hasn't been easy, but last year he started to be creative and now you can see a guy who's come full circle. He's easy to cheer for."
That's not just blind faith from a supportive manager. Talent evaluators are also on board with the notion that Corbin's career arc is ascending.
"He is definitely legit," said an American League scout. "He commands his fastball, has a swing-and-miss slider and excellent mound presence. At 28 years old and assuming health, he's setting himself up for a large payday."
Not that Corbin has much interest in discussing the topic.
"If I knew I was getting five dollars, or whatever, I don't think I would really change," he said. "I would still want to go out and win every game."
Corbin's impressive April includes a one-hitter against the San Francisco Giants and 7⅓ one-hit, shutout innings with 12 strikeouts against the Los Angeles Dodgers. His 0.66 WHIP is third lowest among MLB starters, and his 39 percent strikeout rate is the best in the majors.
"He is definitely legit. He commands his fastball, has a swing-and-miss slider and excellent mound presence. At 28 years old and assuming health, he's setting himself up for a large payday." A major league scout on Patrick Corbin
Corbin's go-to weapon is an 81 mph slider that breaks down and away from lefties and bores in hard at the feet of righties before disappearing in a puff of dirt. Opponents have a microscopic .069/.100/.086 slash line against the slider, and Corbin has induced 37 of his 48 strikeouts with the pitch.
The wild card in Corbin's repertoire is a curveball he throws an average of 73 mph, and occasionally in the upper 60s. It's been so effective as an off-speed pitch, he has been able to keep his changeup in his back pocket and use the pitch only sparingly.
Corbin added the curve this year after doing some reconnaissance work with Paul Goldschmidt and some other Arizona teammates.
"I've talked to Goldy and other hitters, and there have been pitchers we face who have that slow breaking ball and put it in the back of the hitters' minds," Corbin said. "You can either double up with it or throw something hard afterward and just mess with their timing a little bit. I've been able to throw it for a strike, which has helped. If I'm not able to do that, I'm not going to have success with it. I'm just trying to take a little speed off it and giving hitters a different look."
The slider grip was a gift from Corbin's father, Dan, a retired truck driver in upstate New York. Corbin inherited his placid demeanor from his dad. But when he gets on the phone to give updates back home, he spends most of his time talking with his mother, Patricia.
"My dad is kind of a quiet guy and he keeps to himself a little bit," Corbin said. "But he was a competitor at whatever he did, and it kind of carried on with me. It's funny. My mom is kind of the opposite. She's the loud one, and she likes to have fun."
Corbin was a talented basketball player growing up in Cicero, New York, where he rooted for the Carmelo Anthony-Hakim Warrick-Gerry McNamara Syracuse team during its 2003 NCAA championship run. He was also a Yankees fan, although the 260-mile drive from upstate New York to the Bronx made trips to Yankee Stadium a rarity.
Corbin heard the speculation this past offseason that the Yankees inquired about him as a potential trade target. He inadvertently made news recently when he ruminated to USA Today on how much fun it would be to play closer to home, and numerous media outlets latched onto the idea that he's smitten by the idea of signing with the Yankees in free agency. When writers approached him about the comments this week in Philadelphia, Corbin seemed a bit confused by the uproar.
"Maybe it spun out of control a little bit," he said. "It was a rumor this offseason, obviously, and I grew up in New York. But I have a home in Arizona now. I've loved coming up with this organization and being with these guys. Who knows what's going to happen going forward? I just have to prepare for each start the best I can."
Corbin is quiet and methodical by nature, and the episode took him outside of his comfort zone. It never much occurred to him to formulate a game plan on how to navigate the media attention accorded players in their free-agent "walk" years. But the better he pitches, the more conscious he'll have to be about distractions and other land mines. The only thing at stake is his long-term future -- not to mention tens of millions of dollars.
"He's not going to jump up and down when he does well," said Diamondbacks catcher Alex Avila. "At the same time, when he doesn't do well, he's not going to be down on himself. He's very solid in that aspect. He's not going to let the results sway his emotions, which is a good thing. In this game you can have a lot of roller coasters, and the more you can stay off those rollers coasters, the better off you are. He's very even-tempered. He's a guy you don't have to worry about."
Unless you happen to be an opposing hitter standing in the batter's box while Patrick Corbin is looking in for the sign and debating whether to go with the fastball, the slider or that tantalizing-yet-deceptive slow curve. In that case, there's plenty of reason to be worried.