Just before Alex Cobb went on the disabled list, he was pitching the best baseball of his life. He began the year 6-2 with a 2.39 ERA in his first 11 starts, averaging nearly 7 innings an outing and striking out 69 while walking just 17 in 75.1 innings pitched. And then he struggled in his next outing, allowing 6 runs in 4 innings of work, before the following outing proved to be his last of the season until he returns tonight. It has taken a while, but Cobb is finally back. Will the Rays be getting back that pitcher who looked like an ace for his first 11 starts of the season?
Alex Cobb’s stuff isn’t that dominant. He works primarily with his low-90’s sinker and relies heavily on his best pitch, his mid-80’s split-change, for swings-and-misses. His third pitch, his curveball, has never been that great, although Cobb was able to use it to get ahead of hitters for a time before the league figured him out. Looking at Cobb’s stuff, it’s understandable why he was never such a highly-touted prospect and why the Rays have forced him to prove himself at every level to keep his job. But the last three years, Cobb has done nothing but pitch well at the big league level. In 45 major league starts, Cobb is 20-13 with a 3.60 ERA, a 7.2 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 272.2 innings pitched. His second-most similar pitcher according to Baseball-Reference is some guy named Yu Darvish. How can we explain all of that? The answer is threefold: no one understood just how good Cobb’s sinker command was, no one realized that his split-change wasn’t just a plus pitch but a plus-plus one, and he has improved his curveball since arriving in the majors. But how good is Cobb really? Is he the pitcher who looked like an ace this season or the one that looked like a solid third or fourth starter the last two years?
We have no idea what is going to happen when Alex Cobb takes the mound tonight, and we have even less of a clue what kind of pitcher he will become over the next few years. What we do know is that Cobb has been the most reliable Rays pitcher not named David Price the last three years with James Shields now in Kansas City. He may not have the upside of a Matt Moore, a Jeremy Hellickson, or a Chris Archer, but he attacks hitters, forces groundballs, and provides length start after start. It doesn’t matter exactly how Cobb does when he returns. He doesn’t have to dominate and emerge as a frontline pitcher again. All the Rays want is a solidifying presence in a rotation that has been engulfed in chaos over the last week, and Cobb can give them exactly that and maybe more.