While Jeff Niemann’s numbers thus far this season (2-3, 3.38 ERA) might not look gaudy, they do not bare out the success he’s had, particularly in his most recent start in New York, where he went 7 solid innings giving up just 1 ER to a powerful Yankee lineup, but was on the hook for a loss until the Rays 9th inning rally en route to a 4-1 win got Niemann a no decision. His BAA and K to BB ratio were more solid, if not excellent (.221, 30 Strikeouts, 12 Walks) although his BAA to RHB was a gaudy .132. Nonetheless, while Niemann’s early season successes shouldn’t come as a shock, nor should his latest injury, albeit fluky and unrelated to past injuries, Jeff is the only Rays starter that consistently has been unable to remain healthy throughout an entire season.
So why Alex Cobb? Why not just promote Wade Davis back to what he admittedly coveted in the spring and always has, a role in the starting rotation? There are several reasons. For one, Davis, despite being less than thrilled about not getting a starting job to begin with, has adapted to his role quite well, and the numbers bear that out. Wade not only possesses a 2.04 ERA and a 16-6 strikeout to walk ratio, but he has also been asked to take over in several high leverage situation. Most notably, Davis inherited two runners on with nobody out in Texas and struck out the always dangerous Mike Napoli before being victimized by a Longoria error. Davis proceeded to hustle and cover home off of a wild pitch to erase Nelson Cruz and never backed down against the tough Elvis Andrus, finally retiring him on a fly ball to center after an 11 pitch at bat. According to Baseball-Reference, on the season Davis has faced high leverage in 13 plate appearances against him and hitters are just 2 for 13 (.154) with 3 strikeouts versus no walks. To expect Alex Cobb to be able to perform that well under such circumstances would be asking a lot out of anyone, let alone the far less experienced Cobb.
Although Alex has, by the numbers, not faired all that well in Durham (1-4 with a 4.14 ERA in 8 starts) the numbers are somewhat skewed by two bad outings, in which he gave up 6 and 7 ER, and went just 1.2 and 4 innings, respectively. Otherwise, Cobb has given up no more than 2 ER in his other 6 starts, and gone no less than 5 IP in any of them. His K to BB ratio is a strong 44-18 and 34-11 taking out those two poor starts.
When you couple what he has done in Durham with his strong stint in the majors in 2011, Cobb seems like an even more obvious candidate to replace Niemann. In 2011 in the major leagues, Cobb went 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in 9 starts. If you take out his initial poor outing in which the Rays determined he was tipping pitches and his final outing in which he was injured, Davis had a 2.25 ERA. That it is accentuated by the fact that he gave up no more than 3 ER in all but one of his ensuing starts after being re-called back from AAA to tweak his initial issues, and Cobb is undoubtedly deserving of his second opportunity to pitch at the Major League Level. On the season, Cobb had a 37-21 strikeout to walk ratio, not great, but he forced an impressive 54.0% groundball rate overall and in his middle 7 starts had a 30-13 K/BB ratio and a 56.2% groundball rate. Cobb has proved proven himself to be a perfectly capable major league pitcher, and he would have been a starter in the major leagues if he had been on many other teams. While it is unfortunate that it will come due to Niemann’s injury it’s worth nothing that Cobb likely would have been called up at some point this season. However, he likely would have been thrust into a relief role which he is unaccustomed to, or have been called up for just for an occasional spot start.
Niemann’s injury further illustrates the luxury the Rays have with a surplus of quality starting pitchers and why, perhaps, they have been leery about trading any arms away. Maybe in the future, after getting another extended look at Alex Cobb on the big league level, and more of Wade Davis in his unnatural, but successful stint as a reliever, they’ll maximize on their biggest asset to acquire another bat. Until then, the Rays are in good hands, and arms, with Cobb, Davis, and the rest of their starters.