Alex Cobb couldn’t believe it. After just two spring training appearances, the Rays sent him down to minor league camp. Why? He was a pitcher who posted a rock-solid 3.42 ERA in 9 major league starts in 2011. Why did they discount him so hastily? Was he not in their plans? Did they think he wasn’t good enough? Was his future with the Rays in trouble?
Why did the Rays send Cobb down so quickly? Well, he wasn’t pitching well, striking out 4 but walking 4 as well in 4.1 innings, and he wasn’t going to start the season in the big leagues no matter what since the Rays already had six starting pitchers in James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, and Wade Davis. And also, it was a wake-up call. Nine big league starts doesn’t mean much. The Rays still liked Cobb plenty. But he was going to have to drill it into his head that he couldn’t get smug in the slightest bit with his abilities in an organization with starting pitching depth that rivaled anyone in baseball.
Cobb got his break when Jeff Niemann went down with a broken bone in his leg. And after getting called up to the big leagues, Cobb had his ups and downs, but on a whole, Cobb did everything he could to seize the opportunity he was fortunate enough to receive. Cobb was shut down for the remainder of the season after his start Wednesday and his numbers on the season were awfully impressive. On the year he went 10-9 with a 4.18 ERA, a 6.9 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 in 22 starts and 129.1 IP. His ERA- was 107, 7% above the average for a pitcher in Tropicana Field, but for a fifth starter and furthermore a rookie, that’s outstanding. He allowed just about a hit per inning, but his groundball rate was an outstanding 58.6%, third in the big leagues minimum 100 innings pitched. His FIP was an excellent 3.67, his FIP- 93 (7% better than average), and his xFIP was 3.59, with his xFIP- coming in at an excellent 87 (13% better than average). FIP isn’t everything, but his FIP was third among the Rays’ starters who started at least 15 games and so was his xFIP. His groundball rate was the best among every pitcher who threw at least a pitch for the Rays this season. He threw a shutout and his 2 complete games tied with James Shields and David Price for the most on the team. Cobb gave the Rays the type of performance from their 5th starter that they only could have dreamed about entering this season.
How good is Alex Cobb? He has his problems. He doesn’t miss bats too often as he now has a 6.7 K/9 in 182 major league innings. He is extremely dependent on his signature split-change, which he threw 36% of the time in 2012 per Brooks Baseball. It’s his only real swing-and-miss pitch and his best groundball pitch as well. Hitters will adjust to him and he will have to miss bats with his sinker and curveball in order to maintain success. But Cobb got himself good footing as a big league pitcher in his first full major league season and the Rays are optimistic about his ability to perform moving forward. There is no question now that Cobb is part of the Rays’ plans for the future. Don’t worry, Alex- minor league spring training will be a thing of the past.