He had finally made it. Every little kid throwing around a baseball would tell you that their dream was to make it to the major leagues. Is that true? Yes, but not entirely. Their dream is to be that pitcher getting the ball for Game 7 of the World Series or that better stepping up to the plate with 2 outs in the 9th. They don’t want to just get to the major leagues for a few games and move on with their lives- they want to get there and establish themselves as formidable major league players. For 99.9% of those little kids, that dream won’t be coming true. But Alex Cobb can now officially count himself among the select few after Joe Maddon told reporters that Cobb is “pretty much ensconced ” in the Rays’ rotation. That would be an exciting thing to hear for any player in baseball- but after everything Cobb has been through the last two years, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone more deserving than him.
Back in 2010, Alex Cobb had a dynamite season at the Rays’ Double-A Montgomery affiliate, going 7-5 with a 2.71 ERA, a 9.6 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 22 starts, a relief appearance, and 119.1 innings pitched. After a season like that, Cobb would have gotten a chance to compete for a big league rotation spot the following spring training had he been in just about any organization in baseball, and even if he had failed, a major league call-up would not be far away if he kept pitching well. That was not the case for Alex Cobb as a member of the Rays organization. In spring training, Cobb did get invited to major league camp but lasted a grand total of 4 innings before getting sent back down to the minors. How did he make it to the major leagues? He blew away Triple-A hitters in his first four starts of the season, going 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA and a 29-6 strikeout to walk ratio, and even then he needed Jeff Niemann to get injured to get a chance. He made his major league debut on May 1st and did not pitch well, lasting just 4.1 innings allowing 4 runs, and that was it for his opportunity as the Rays sent him straight back to Triple-A. He proceeded to pitch even better at Triple-A, managing a ridiculous 0.36 ERA and a 21-4 strikeout to walk ratio in his next four starts, and even then he needed Andy Sonnanstine to collapse to return to the major leagues. Once he got back to the Rays, Cobb made sure to do everything he could not to let his second chance slip away. He went 2-0 with a 2.36 ERA and a 16-8 strikeout to walk ratio in 4 starts and 26.2 innings pitched, and his big league ERA after 5 starts was a rock-solid 3.41. But it didn’t matter. Niemann came back and Cobb was sent back down to Triple-A. He made four more starts, slipping to a 3.60 ERA but keeping his strikeout to walk ratio at an impressive 20-6, and then the Rays finally brought him back up as they needed to limit Jeremy Hellickson‘s innings. Cobb had to frustrated after being sent up and down despite pitching so well and he took that frustration out on opposing hitters, managing a 1.86 ERA and a 14-5 strikeout to walk ratio in his first three starts back including a 9-strikeout effort in the third of those 3 starts. But in his fourth start, something was clearly off with Cobb as he allowed 5 runs in 4.1 innings before leaving with an apparent shoulder injury. It turned out that it wasn’t his shoulder that was the problem, but one of his ribs, and he had to undergo season-ending rib surgery to resolve the issue. Cobb’s 2011 season was characterized by ups and downs, and unfortunately for Cobb, it ended on a sorry note.
What was the best way to describe Alex Cobb’s 2011 season? It was one of those frustrating sonnets your English teacher made you read in 10th grade filled with endless longing, beaming hope and optimism appearing but then being taken away, and then a rhyming couplet of Cobb’s greatest success in the major leagues, the 9-strikeout game, followed by the nail in the coffin for his season, the final start ended by the rib injury. Cobb had made the major leagues and pitched well- but it could not have been very satisfying. The Rays refused to guarantee him a job even as he kept big league hitters in check and right when things were looking up, the rib injury ended his season. But at least Cobb could eagerly anticipate 2012 spring training, where he would get an opportunity to show the Rays what he could do once again and solidify his spot in the Rays’ rotation- or so he thought.
Once again, Alex Cobb began the spring in the Rays’ big league camp, as expected. But once again, he didn’t last very long. He made just 2 appearances, allowing only 1 run in 4.1 innings but managing just a 4-4 strikeout to walk ratio, and before he even knew what hit him, he was back in minor league camp. But Cobb headed back to Durham on a mission and pitched outstanding again, managing just a 4.14 ERA and a 44-18 strikeout to walk ratio in 8 starts but actually a 2.95 ERA and a 40-15 strikeout to walk ratio taking out one disaster start, and when Niemann got injured again, Cobb was more than ready to not just fill Niemann’s role, but run with it. In 23 starts with the Rays, Cobb went 11-9 with a nice 4.03 ERA, a 7.0 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and 0.7 HR/9 in 136.1 innings pitched. He tossed two complete games, including a shutout of the playoff-bound Oakland Athletics, and taking out two starts in which he allowed 8 runs, Cobb’s ERA was a great 3.22. And it wasn’t a fluke. Cobb showed great control and command of his low-90’s sinker to force a 58.8% groundball rate, the third-best mark in the major leagues minimum 100 innings pitched, and he paired it with his outstanding split-change for strikeouts and his curveball for an effective third pitch. Cobb may not have the highest upside- it seems like he’ll probably settle in a third or fourth starter role moving forward- but after seeing him in the major leagues for a full season’s worth of starts, 32 starts and 189 innings pitched between 2011 and 2012, it’s clear that he has a chance to be a dependable mid-rotation option for the Rays for years to come. The Rays finally gave Cobb the recognition he deserved on Tuesday as they all but anointed him as a member of their rotation for 2013.
Were the Rays too hard on Cobb? It’s hard to say that they weren’t but you can’t really blame them- they were a team with plenty of rotation depth looking to contend, and they didn’t have time to let a young pitcher sort out his problems on the major league level. But none of that mattered to Cobb. He didn’t ask for any sympathy and found a way to overcome all the challenges in front of him and see all of his efforts come to fruition. And in return for his perseverance, Cobb has received the opportunity to focus only on the things within in his control and simply do what he has done his entire life: taking the mound every time his coach gave him the ball and doing the best he can to get hitters out and help his team win.