In 2011, Alex Cobb got his big break in the major leagues. And when he got it, he succeeded. In 9 starts and 52.2 IP for the Rays, Cobb pitched to a 3.42 ERA and 3.61 FIP, some solid performance. Yet after a rib injury ended his season and Matt Moore proved to be the real deal and more down the stretch, Cobb could be relegated back to Triple-A Durham despite dominating there to the tune of a 1.87 ERA and 2.70 FIP in 2011. But nothing is certain. Maybe there will be an injury. Maybe a trade gives Cobb the opportunity for a swingman role in the bullpen. For all we know, Andrew Friedman could be engineering two trades trading away both Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann and handing Cobb the 5th starter spot (probably not). Let’s look back at Cobb’s 2011 performance and then attempt to predict how he would do if the Rays do indeed decide to give him a rotation spot.
In 2011 for the Rays, Cobb went 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA, 37 strikeouts (6.3 K/9), 21 walks (3.6 BB/9), and 3 homers allowed (0.5 HR/9) in 9 starts and 52.2 IP. His FIP was 3.61, his xFIP 3.90, and his SIERA was 4.09. In his middle 7 starts, spanning from late May to the end of July with some minor league time mixed in, Cobb was excellent, going 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA, a 6.1 K/9, a 2.7 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 in 44 IP. That amounted to a nice 3.09 FIP, although his xFIP was actually worse at 4.56. What Cobb did do well all season was force groundballs. He forced 54.0% of the balls put into play against him to be groundballs, considerably above the league average of around 44%. He did allow a lot of balls in play as 72% of plate appearances batters had against him ended in a ball in play compared to the 69% league average, so he was undoubtedly helped by the Rays defense. Tropicana Field was also Cobb’s friend as just 7% of the flyballs he allowed went for home runs and 4.6% of his flyballs to the outfield, below the league averages of around 10% and 7.5% respectively. Purely based on the stats, Alex Cobb is a solid pitcher who was helped out a lot by his defense and home ballpark. He seems to profile perfectly as a 5th starter, which is the only role the Rays would ever ask him to fill. Let’s look see what the Pitch F/X data from BrooksBaseball.net to get a feel for Cobb’s pitches in an attempt to see how good he really is.
(For an explanation of this type of graph, please see here.)
Looking at the graph, one pitch really stands out: the pitch on the teal line, Cobb’s split-change. The pitch is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of a splitter and a changeup. Looking at the graph, it mirrored the movement on his fastball with around a 6 MPH difference before dropping a significant margin more, 17 inches more. Cobb used it more than any of his other pitches because it really was his only pitch with dynamic movement. In fact, according to Brooks, 70.9% of the swings and misses Cobb forced were on his split-change and 63.3% of his strikeouts were from the pitch as well. But we need to talk about Cobb’s other pitches. His curveball looks nice on the graph, but it was loopy and it was so different from his other pitches that hitters didn’t have a hard time recognizing it. His fastball moved away from right-handed batters but didn’t have much sink nor velocity, and his sinker was the same thing was just a little more movement and slightly less velocity. Luckily for Cobb, he has a pretty deceptive delivery that makes all his pitches more effective than they seem at first glance. However, part of the reason he was so effective at forcing groundballs was just that hitters were unfamiliar with him. Hitters know the scouting reports by now, so Cobb will have to do a better job mixing his pitches. Cobb’s split-change is a very nice pitch. But he has to be able to use all his pitches effectively in order to maximize his effectiveness. Cobb’s critical pitches will be his two fastballs, his four-seamer and sinker. Cobb will have to use good control and some guile to get by with his fastball and sinker for at least half of his pitches. If he can pull that off and throw in an occasional curveball, his split-change will be able to remain a very effective pitch.
Crazy things need to happen for Alex Cobb to get the Rays’ 5th starter spot. If he does get the job, he will put up solid numbers. I would predict 30 starts and 185 IP if Cobb were to get a job in a five-man Rays rotation with a 144 strikeouts (7.0 K/9), 58 walks (2.8 BB/9), and 25 homers allowed (1.2 HR/9). I think he will be able to use his fastball and sinker relatively effectively and make due with his split-change as his out-pitch, but his proclivity towards forcing groundballs should end and his home run rate should skyrocket. Those strikeout, walk (adding in a 0.5 HBP/9 from his time in the minors), and homer rates would result in a 4.50 FIP, and because Cobb would have flyball tendencies, limiting the effect of the Rays defense on his ERA, I would project a 4.36 ERA. That’s by no means a bad mark. Alex Cobb can be a good 4th or 5th starter in the big leagues. The problem for him is that the Rays currently have 6 starters better than him and two others close to the big leagues with more upside in Alexander Torres and Christopher Archer.
Expect Alex Cobb to get big league time in 2012 and probably make a handful of starts. But look for him to appear more in middle relief. Cobb’s split-change is a plus pitch, and if he can generate some more velocity on his fastball and sinker out of the bullpen, that could be a nice niche for him while he remains in the Rays organization. Alex Cobb is stuck in the Rays organization even though another team would appreciate him in the back of their rotation. But there’s no chance Cobb will be traded in his pre-arbitration years, and it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll trade two starters to give him a rotation slot. Alex Cobb will make an impact for the Rays in 2012, but not in the way he has in mind.