If Arizona pitcher Patrick Corbin ever has the privilege of performing in a World Series game, he'll spare the world the cliché quote that's been a staple of postseason heroes since the dead ball era. Unlike countless others, Corbin did not grow up in the backyard playing whiffle ball and fantasizing about hitting the game-winning homer or striking out the big opposing slugger in the seventh game of the Fall Classic.
As a kid in Syracuse, N.Y., Corbin flashed a mean crossover dribble, deep range with the 3-point shot and a pretty fair vertical leap. He rooted for Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara when they led the Orangemen to a national title in 2003, and held his own in high school ball against future Syracuse standouts Brandon Triche and Andy Rautins.
Sportswriters who chronicle Corbin's ascent from a raw kid in upstate New York to an All-Star pitcher with the Diamondbacks at age 24 invariably cite the quaint details of his debut at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, where he was so green and unschooled in baseball etiquette that he showed up for tryouts clad in jeans his junior year. His stuff and baseball comportment have come a long way since then.
Corbin brings a 12-1 record and a 2.31 ERA into Sunday's start against San Diego. He ranks fourth among National League pitchers in WHIP at 1.00 and seventh in Wins Above Replacement at 3.7, and is tied for third with 17 quality starts behind Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw.
Corbin has been a savior for an Arizona rotation that's been hit by injuries to Brandon McCarthy and Trevor Cahill and a disappointing performance from Opening Day starter Ian Kennedy, and in the process caught and passed other prospects who once ranked ahead of him in the organizational pecking order. That list includes his good friend Tyler Skaggs, who came to Arizona with Corbin in the 2010 trade that sent Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks to the Angels.
How did Corbin come this far, this quickly? He addresses that question with the same focused, analytical approach that he applies to his craft every day.
"I was still young and figuring out how to pitch and growing into my body,'' Corbin says. "I knew I was going to get a little bigger and stronger, and throw a little harder. Maybe my stuff got a little better. It was a matter of time. I started to learn more about pitching, and I'm still learning today.''
Like White Sox starter Chris Sale, Corbin is an angular (6-2, 185-pound) lefty who comes at pitchers through a maze of arms and legs. But his most fitting comparable in the big leagues might be Washington's Jordan Zimmermann. Corbin throws from the left side and Zimmermann from the right, but they're both emotional flat-liners with a penchant for throwing strikes.
"That's a really good analogy,'' says Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. "All of their pitches are above average, but you wouldn't call any of them unhittable or absolutely dominating. But there's nothing in the middle of the plate. If you try to be patient and get their pitch counts up, you'll be down in the count 0-2 or 1-2. And if you try to be aggressive, they don't give you that many pitches to hit, so you could be making quick outs.''
Both pitchers are capable of performing in all kinds of weather. Zimmermann is a fan of ice fishing as a native Wisconsinite, and Corbin wields a mean snow shovel going back to his formative years in Syracuse.
After high school, Corbin played baseball and basketball at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, N.Y., before gravitating to Chipola College, the Florida powerhouse that counts Buck Showalter, Jose Bautista, Russell Martin and Tyler Flowers among its alumni-turned-big leaguers. During his time in Marianna, Fla., Corbin made major strides under the guidance of Chipola coach Jeff Johnson, who has a lengthy track record for getting the most out of pitchers.
Tom Kotchman, a longtime coach and scout who is now working in the Boston organization, lobbied on Corbin's behalf in Anaheim during the 2009 draft meetings, and the Angels signed Corbin to a $450,000 bonus as the 80th overall pick. Corbin reminded Kotchman of Joe Hesketh, another skinny lefty from upstate New York who enjoyed moderate success with the Montreal Expos and Red Sox in the 1980s and '90s.
Kotchman managed Corbin at his first professional stop in the Pioneer League in '09, and got a glimpse of Corbin's raw athleticism during a game in Helena, Mont. The opposing batter hit a comebacker to the mound, and Corbin ran directly toward the baserunner who was hung up between third base and home plate. The runner juked him and was bound for home when Corbin shifted into a gear that Kotchman hadn't previously seen. He dived, applied the tag and quickly scrambled to his feet to throw out the batter at second base.
"I'm thinking, 'OK, that's what everybody was talking about,''' Kotchman says.
Corbin's implacable demeanor was on display late in the season. Corbin, Skaggs and Garrett Richards were on the Angels' rookie league roster, and then-general manager Tony Reagins and senior adviser Bill Stoneman made a trip to Orem, Utah, to scout the three young starters.
"Patrick was the third one to pitch,'' Kotchman says. "I walked into the locker room after batting practice, and he was the only one there and he had his headphones on. I said, 'Hey man, do you have anything left in the tank for the big league GM?' He just nodded his head yes. No nerves, nothing. He's borderline ice.''
How grass-roots and sincere is Corbin? When he received the call from Arizona for his big league debut last season in Miami, he picked up the phone and called Kotchman to deliver the good news. After mildly chastising Corbin for not calling his college coach first, Kotchman got a tad emotional.
"He's so respectful and everything,'' Kotchman says. "I told him, 'Patrick, do me a favor and call Coach Johnson right now before you make me cry.'''
Slider from hell
Corbin's breakthrough season has been a portrait in statistical contrasts. His 12-1 record could actually be better given his lack of run support. During an exasperating stretch in June, he posted a 2.55 ERA only to emerge with five straight no-decisions.
But his glossy won-loss record also invites skepticism because of some peripheral numbers that point to a possible regression in August and September. Corbin has the sixth-highest rate of runners left on base in the game, at 82.1 percent, and the eighth-lowest batting average on balls in play, at .246. If more of those baserunners start scoring and a few of those batted balls begin finding holes instead of gloves, he could be in for a rough patch.
In the meantime, Corbin's teammates take the field behind him and see an awful lot of tentative, off-balance swings.
"You see really good major leaguers basically get overmatched sometimes,'' says Diamondbacks outfielder Cody Ross. "I stand out there in right and left field and I see a lot of check swings against his slider. Guys are thinking it's a fastball, and at the last second the ball is down and out of the zone and they realize it's not. That tells you it's tough to pick up the spin.''
Yes, the slider. According to ESPN Stats & Information, opponents swing and miss against it 54 percent of the time -- easily the best rate in the majors. And Corbin absolutely toys with lefty hitters, who are batting .156 (17-for-109) with 39 strikeouts against him this season.
Corbin recently became the first Arizona pitcher to begin a season with an 8-0 record at home, bettering 7-0 starts by Brian Anderson and a guy named Randy Johnson. As his achievements mount, the folks who had faith in him from the outset share in the same sense of pride. That group includes Tom Kotchman, who has a son, Casey, who's played 10 years in the big leagues, and a daughter, Crystal, who was an accomplished college softball player.
"Here's the utmost compliment I can give Patrick: My daughter is a practicing Christian, and he's one of four guys that I would tell, 'Here's her phone number. You have my permission to date her,''' Kotchman says. "That's the biggest compliment I can give the young man, makeup-wise.''
For the record, Corbin is not dating Kotchman's daughter. But he's cutting a swath through National League lineups and laying the foundation for a bright and lengthy future in the game. It was only a matter of time.