Something that has been quite publicized in recent years has been the so-called “Verducci Effect.” Pioneered by SI writer Tom Verducci, the Effect says that pitchers under 25 years old who see an increase of 30 or more innings from their previous career-high in any season is likely to face injury or regression the next season. Whether the Verducci Effect actually means anything is up for debate and some might say that it’s been officially debunked, but nevertheless it’s something to watch for next season and something Rays fans could hear about quite a bit because one of the Rays’ starting pitchers, Alex Cobb, made Verducci’s list. Can Cobb get past the warning signs and deliver another strong season for the Rays in 2013?
Cobb qualified for Verducci’s list because he threw 177.2 innings pitched between Triple-A and the major leagues in 2012, solidly above his career-high of 139.2 innings pitched, which he set in 2008. The difference appears more stark when you instead compare Cobb’s 177.2 innings pitched in 2012 to the 130 innings pitched in 2011, including just 52.2 higher-pressure innings in the major leagues. Cobb pitched very well in 2012, going 11-9 with a 4.03 ERA, a 7.0 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9 (3.73 FIP) in 23 starts (including 2 complete games) and 136.1 innings pitched during his time in the majors. Armed with his strong sinker, dynamic split-change, and solid curveball, Cobb didn’t dominate, but he looked like a pitcher with a chance to be a very good mid or back of the rotation starter for a very long time. But can he continue that into next season?
One immediate red flag for Cobb is that he has missed times with injuries the last four seasons according to Baseball Prospectus’ injury database. But the other side of the coin in that none of those injuries were really arm related. While Cobb missed 2 games back in 2009 for what may have been some arm soreness, his 2010 injury was his oblique, his 2011 injury is listed as his shoulder but was really an aberrant rib issue, and his 2012 issue that sidelined him for a little while was a contusion in his leg from a line drive back to the mound. The biggest way that those injuries have affected Cobb’s arm, though, is that they have cost him time on the mound. But Cobb is not a pitcher that seems especially susceptible to arm injuries. He’s not a hard-thrower, topping out at 92 MPH with his fastball and usually staying 90-91, and he has a relatively smooth delivery, hiding the ball well and featuring a slight crossfire but not featuring very much effort and certainly not having a motion that could be described as violent. Cobb doesn’t have too big of a pitcher’s frame, but he’s a solid 6’2″, 195, and looks natural on the mound. Cobb is about the last pitcher that you would describe as “injury waiting to happen.”
At one point, the Rays said that they were going to shut down Cobb in mid-September to limit his innings in what amounted to his first full season in the major leagues. But Cobb was throwing the ball so well, managing a 3-1 record, a 2.73 ERA and a 27-11 strikeout to walk ratio in 5 starts on the month, that the Rays could not take the ball from him. But that could not have been the only reason. Cobb was showing veteran poise on the mound, not overexerting himself but just going out on the mound and doing what he could do to help the team. Earlier in the season in a game against the Kansas City Royals, Cobb had a disaster start, allowing 8 runs, but the Rays had a shot bullpen after a doubleheader the previous day and saw that Cobb was not getting too frustrated and allowed him to throw an 8-inning complete game in the loss. Cobb proved again and again that he’s a very self-aware pitcher who knows his limits and never tries to do too much. It’s not just Cobb’s arsenal, experience, and lack of a history of arm injuries that’s going to help Cobb stay on the mound in 2013- it’s that mentality that ties everything together for him. Cobb and the Rays are going to have be cautious next season, and injuries can happen at any point for a pitcher. But everything about Cobb says that he will stay calm, stay within himself, and do everything he can to stay on the mound and pitch well for the Rays next season. When Verducci came up with his effect, Alex Cobb was not the pitcher he had in mind.