On any other team, Alex Cobb would be one of the top pitching prospects to come through their system in recent years. In the Tampa Bay Rays organization, he often gets overlooked.
Cobb was originally drafted by the Rays in the 4th round of the 2006 MLB Amateur Draft out of Vero Beach High School. He made his debut later that year for the Princeton Devil Rays of the Appalachian League. In the 6 games he appeared in, encompassing 8.2 innings, he gave up 9 hits and 3 walks while striking out 8 batters. Of those 9 hits, 3 were home runs. However, he showed promise, especially with his 2.67 K/BB rate.
That brief showing in Princeton was sufficient for Cobb to be promoted to the Hudson Valley Renegades in the New York-Penn League. In his first full season in the minors, he ended up with a 5-6 record and a 3.54 ERA over 16 games, all starts. Cobb pitched 81.1 innings, giving up 78 hits and 31 walks while striking out 62 batters. While his strikeout rate declined, his WHiP had slight improvement, decreasing from 1.385 to 1.340. He had his greatest improvement in his home run rate, as he only permitted 4 home runs over the course of the year.
In 2008, Cobb took the next step up the ladder, as he was assigned to the Columbus Catfish of the Southern League. The results were mixed, as Cobb showed significant improvement in some areas, while he regressed in others. He posted a 9-7 record with a 3.29 ERA over his 139.2 innings pitched. Cobb only permitted 113 hits and 35 walks, dropping his WHiP and BB/9 to 1.06 and 2.3 respectively. However, he regressed significantly with his home run rate. Cobb gave up 16 home runs, giving him a rate of approximately 1 per 9 innings. He also hit 16 batters, and only struck out 97, to post the lowest K/9 rate (6.3) of his career.
Cobb displayed enough of an improvement to move up to the next level, as he was promoted to the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Florida State League for the 2009 season. There, Cobb began to display the form that has made him into a legitimate prospect. He went 8-5 with a 3.03 ERA in 124.2 innings. He gave up 116 hits, and displayed a greater ability to keep the ball in the park, giving up only 6 home runs. His control improved, as he walked only 31 hitters while recording 107 strikeouts. Cobb’s K/BB rate improved dramatically, from 2.77 to 3.45. The improvement in control also manifested itself in the number of hit batsmen, as Cobb only hit 9 batters over the season.
For the 2010 season, Cobb was promoted to the Montgomery Biscuits of the Southern League, marking the fourth consecutive year that he moved up exactly one level. Cobb continued to excel, posting a 7-5 record with a 2.71 ERA in 119.2 innings. He gave up 120 hits, marking the first time since his debut in 2006 that he gave up over a hit per inning, and walked 35 batters. However, his strikeout rate increased, as he struck out 128 batters, marking the first time he had struck out more than one batter per inning. His K/BB rate improved to 3.66, as he displayed the ability to get the big strikeout when it was needed to end a threat. Despite a bump up in his BB/9 (2.2 in 2009 to 2.6 in 2010), there were further signs that Cobb had improved his control, as he hit only 4 batters all year.
Cobb advanced to the Durham Bulls of the International League to open the 2011 season, and continued to display improvement. In 13 starts, he went 5-1 with a 1.87 ERA. As impressive as those numbers are, they do not tell the full story. He only gave up 61 hits and 16 walks over 67.1 innings, giving him a career best 2.1 walks per 9 innings. Cobb struck out 70 batters, which gave him a career best K/BB rate of 4.38. He also got the opposition to hit ground balls on 56.1% of their at bats, a significantly better rate than the International League average of 41.5%.
Finally, the Rays called him up on May 1st. He made his major league debut that same day, pitching 4.1 innings against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He gave up 4 hits and 4 walks, leading to 4 earned runs while striking out 3 batters. He was sent back to Durham after that game, but was later recalled on May 31st. Overall, he pitched in 9 games at the major league level, finishing with a 3-2 record and a 3.42 ERA. He gave up 49 hits and 21 walks, while striking out 37 batters. His strikeout rate was not nearly as impressive as it was in the minors, as he only struck out 6.3 batters per 9innings; however, he continued his ground ball tendencies. For every fly ball he gave up, he induced 1.17 groundballs, significantly better than the major league average of 0.82. Cobb was also able to induce the double play on 21% of all opportunities, again a much better rate than the major league average of 10%.
2012 finds Cobb back at Durham to start the year. He was briefly recalled on April 15, but was sent down the following day. So far for Durham, Cobb has a 0-2 record with a 4.09 ERA. However, these statistics are skewed by a horrendous start on April 24th, where he gave up 6 earned runs on 8 hits and 4 walks in just 4 innings pitched. Given his track record, and the issues the Rays have had in the back of their bullpen thus far this season, it would not be a surprise if Cobb was to be called up again later on this year.
What type of pitcher can Alex Cobb become at the major league level? Cobb throws a fastball that is consistently in the mid to lower 90′s, a decent curveball, and a solid change. He is also very adept at changing the velocity on his pitches without changing his arm speed, routinely having a 10 to 15 MPH difference between the fastball and the curve. Cobb can lose his control occasionally with the fastball, but that should be refined as he gets older. While his strikeout rates in the minor leagues were solid, Cobb appears to be a similar pitcher to current Ray Jeremy Hellickson. He appears as though he could become a solid middle of the rotation starter, with the upside of a second starter.