When free agency started Patrick Corbin became the object of affection of every team in baseball that needed pitching…which is of course every team. He made the rounds and even visited Philadelphia to meet with the Phillies but he eventually landed on Washington and The Nationals (on one of the Nat’s patented lay-a-way style “deferred deals”). The Nationals paid/will pay/are paying a hefty cost for Corbin’s services, $140M for six years. For his part Corbin hasn’t been really “ace-like” until this past season so when the Phillies announced an extension with their ace Aaron Nola on Wednesday it was curious to see that they got a much better deal than the Nats got with Corbin. They are different situations but it gives us a chance to examine value vs performance.
To recap Nola’s deal, it appears to be a four year $45M contract with a team option for the fifth year that adds another $16M, so potentially a five year, $56M pact. The Phillies bought out the rest of Nola’s arbitration years and got at least the one year extra with the option for the second year in tow. Nola was seeking $6.75M for 2019 countering the $4.5M the club was offering this offseason and Nola would have most likely won in arbitration. Nola finished third in Cy Young voting this season and surely an arbiter would have taken that into consideration. This was his first year of arbitration eligiblity.
Had Nola’s current performance trajectory continued he would be looking at getting near record-setting numbers through his next few years of arbitration. For purposes of evaluation Jake Arrieta got a record $10.7M for his second arbitration-eligible year, Max Scherzer got $15.5M for his third and David Price got $19.75M for his fourth. It should be noted that all three were coming off Cy Young award winning campaigns.
All totaled Nola’s best case scenario would net him a total of $53.75M for his remaining arbitration years, as unlikely as that would be it does give us an arbitration total for comparison. The Phillies got all those years plus one more guaranteed for $46M so there’s no doubt this is a very good deal for the Phillies.
But how does Nola and his new contract compare to Corbin and his new ink?
In simple terms, if these deals were on yelp! they’d look like this:
Aaron Nola: $$ ✪✪✪✪
Patrick Corbin: $$$$ ✪✪
Yes, they were entirely different situations where Corbin was a free agent out on the open market available to the highest bidder and Nola was due to go through this year and the next three as property of the Phillies under salary arbitration, but there’s still some comp there and again, this is for the purposes of gauging value.
Also, there’s the guaranteed year and the option year the Phillies secured after financial control of Nola would have ended. These are equivalent to the first two years of Corbin’s deal with the Nats but it’s difficult to compare the two sets because Corbin’s deal is extremely heavily backloaded. Corbin’s deal does however have an annual average value (AAV) of $23.33M and we can compare that to Nola’s AAV of $15.5M per and see that at The Phillies are getting a much better deal for their “free agent.”
So, what is each team buying?
The Phillies are getting the pitcher who finished third in Cy Young voting last year and 13thin MVP voting. Patrick Corbin had the indisputable best year in his career last season and finished fifth in Cy Young race. He did not receive any MVP votes.
Aaron Nola has pitched 569 innings over his first 3 and a half years in the Majors. He has an ERA over that span of 3.35 and carries a 3.86 K/BB rate. All told he has a FIP of 3.24.
For his same first 556 innings to start his career, Corbin carried a significantly higher ERA of 4.14 and a slightly lower K/BB rate of 2.92. His FIP was considerably higher at 3.92.
Things get slightly better for Corbin if we look at his last set of similar innings. From 2016-2018 Corbin pitched 545 innings to a slightly better 4.03 ERA. He still falls short of Nola’s K/BB rate at 3.17 and he was able to lower his FIP to 3.70, still not as good as Nola but better than younger Corbin.
When we compare both to the rest of the league we see a similar trend. Nola’s 3.14 FIP ranks 12thin all of baseball since he entered the league in 2015 and Corbin’s 3.66 since 2015 ranks 34th. And things aren’t much different when we look at K/BB rate with Nola’s 3.86 sitting at 21stin baseball and Corbin’s 3.30 at 41st.
The only scenario in which Corbin comes out on top is when you look solely at last year’s stats, and even that’s not definitive. This is essentially what the Nats paid for – what Corbin was able to accomplish last year. For his part it was more than just a lucky year in that he changed when he used his pitches more-so than changing his actual pitches or refining a new pitch.
From 2012 to 2017 Corbin used his slider 40% of the time to RHH and 23% of the time to LHH. In his ace-like 2018 season he upped it to 54% to LHH and 38% to RHH. The whiff rate on the slider went up from 23.82% to over 30%. He also started using it about 20% more often in two strike counts resulting in a drastic change to his strike out rate. From 2012-2017 Corbin averaged 7.77 K’s/9 which puts him at 80thon the list of qualified starters for that time period. In 2018 he was 6th.
Additionally it appears that the increased usage of the slider resulted in a more effective outcome for the rest of his pitches. The batting average against dropped from .302 to .252 for his fourseam fastball and from .302 to .277 for his sinker. Mixing the slider in more often kept hitters off balance and off the bases.
Of course all of this is easily duplicated which means Corbin’s 2018 success probably isn’t an outlier but it may become less effective as it becomes more a part of his scouting report and batters start to adjust by expecting that pitch in those counts.
In contrast, Aaron Nola is still adding pitches to his repertoire. The addition and subsequent increased usage of a change up along with when he’s using that change up is helping to contribute and build upon his already achieved success.
In other words, where Corbin has figured something out that has propelled his rise from average to well above-average, Nola is adding to an arsenal of already plus pitches while simultaneously prioritizing usage of said arsenal to take him from a solid 2/3 pitcher to a certified Ace.
Again, the contract situations are different but there is no way in the world to deny that the Phillies REALLY got themselves a much better deal on a bona fide #1 than the Nats got on Corbin.
The one hardcore solid difference that we see in each of the situations is very obvious: Patrick Corbin has a much better agent than Aaron Nola. Maybe after the Phillies extend Nola again through his age 35 season he should look up Corbin’s guy.