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Why Patrick Corbin and Yan Gomes became battery mates for the Nationals

Manager Dave Martinez wants to keep Patrick Corbin and catcher Yan Gomes paired together this season. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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DENVER — Patrick Corbin was not surprised to see Yan Gomes call a slider and then hover his catcher’s mitt just above the ground. It did not matter, at least to them, that there was a runner on third base with one out, that his slider could kick off the dirt and get past Gomes, that a passed ball or wild pitch would equal a run and tie the score.

That was the situation in the third inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 12. Corbin, the Washington Nationals’ new left-handed starter, was in a jam. Gomes, their new all-star catcher, was helping him navigate it. The result won’t stand out in the wide view of this season — it hardly stood out that day — but it showed why Manager Dave Martinez has made a point to pair Corbin and Gomes this season.

“Trust is so huge in those kind of spots; it’s the biggest thing,” Corbin said. “I want to throw my best pitch and I want to throw it a certain way, regardless of where the runners are. But it does take the catcher being able to handle that. You’d figure that in the major leagues you get that all of the time, but it’s not always the case. We have it with our two catchers, and I definitely have it whenever I work with Yan.”

Seven of Corbin’s final nine pitches in that third inning were sliders. Six of them were below the zone. The last one, to set down Starling Marte and get a second consecutive strikeout, spun against the dirt and into the comfort of Gomes’s glove. And that, in the small sample size of two hitters, is why Corbin and Gomes are well-suited for each other.

Corbin’s slider is one of the most effective pitches in baseball and one of the reasons he earned a six-year, $140 million deal with the Nationals in December. He threw it 41 percent of the time with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018, according to FanGraphs, and 36 percent so far this season. He needs a catcher who is confident to both call it and block it, at any point of a game, and any time he wants to miss bats for a strikeout. That’s how he makes his four-seam fastball, sinker and curveball more effective. It’s how he thrives.

Gomes, a 31-year-old veteran, came to Washington as a heralded pitch framer, a sure-handed blocker and, above all else, a game-caller who spends hours analyzing opposing hitters. He was acquired in a trade just 12 days after the Nationals signed veteran Kurt Suzuki in November. That gave Martinez a good problem — two proven catchers, only one starting spot every day — and he figured combinations would naturally form once the season began. The first was Suzuki and starter Aníbal Sánchez, because they played together with the Atlanta Braves last year and reimagined Sánchez’s pitch usage.

The second is Corbin and Gomes. Corbin is 1-0 with a 2.36 ERA while averaging 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings, with Gomes catching all of his starts. His fifth start, against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on Tuesday, is in a hitter-friendly park that has given him trouble in the past. He has a 6.55 ERA in 11 career appearances in Denver. Keeping his pitches low, and trusting that slider, is the only way he’ll improve there. Trusting his catcher should help, too.

“Of course we work hard on sequencing, but it can also be pretty simple: Patrick has one of the best pitches in baseball,” Gomes said. “My job is to figure out whenever we can throw that without overdoing it. There’s a balance. But you can’t worry about a guy being on third, or on base, or anything like that. He throws the ball, and I catch it. That’s how we calculate it."

Before heading to spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., Gomes sunk into research on the Nationals’ starting staff. Part of that was clicking through analytics websites, looking up video clips, seeing how the pitchers’ tendencies had changed from one season to the next. Another was calling their former catchers for advice. That led him to a conversation with Jeff Mathis, a 36-year-old journeyman who caught Corbin in Arizona the past two years. They discussed Corbin’s fastball-to-breaking-ball usage, how each pitch builds on the next and how mixing in his change-up can keep hitters off balance.

But the meat of Mathis’s breakdown was clear: Don’t overthink it. Call the slider.

“I thought I could do that without screwing up too much,” Gomes joked this month. “Everything Jeff and I talked about went back to that. So I got the picture.”

“There is a reason why you go after an experienced catcher like Yan Gomes,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said in March. “You can be pretty damn sure nothing on the field is happening by accident.”

That led Corbin and Gomes to that puzzle of an inning against the Pirates in mid-April. Conventional theory says low breaking balls are dangerous with a runner on third in a tight game. A pitcher can get away with one or two. Not six. But modern baseball theory says a pitcher should throw his best pitch as much as possible in a given game, and especially in high-leverage matchups. According to Brooks Baseball, a pitching analytics website, Corbin throws his slider 65 percent of the time when ahead in the count against lefties and 48 percent when ahead to righties. There may be situations that skew those numbers one way or another. This was not one of them.

Corbin didn’t want to concede a run on a sacrifice fly or grounder in the infield. He wanted two strikeouts. The two hitters, Adam Frazier and Marte, were aggressive lefties looking for anything to drive. Corbin’s slider is just an illusion of that, traveling on the same plane as his fastball until it spins out of the zone. Frazier fanned at three sliders, one of them buried in the dirt, and Marte chased a near-identical pitch to end the threat. Corbin then paced toward the dugout and, just before he got there, pounded Gomes’s chest protector with a tight fist.

“I know he is going to catch any pitch that I throw,” Corbin said. “That allows me to not even think about base runners.”

“I know he is going to make a good pitch no matter what I call,” Gomes offered as analysis of that sequence. And it only took two months for them to learn that about each other.

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