The Rays handed Alex Cobb the ball for the AL Wild Card Game versus the Cleveland Indians believing that he could give them a huge performane to help them move on to the ALDS. Their convictions were correct. Cobb went 6.2 shutout innings scattering 8 hits and a walk while striking out 5 to lead them to victory. How he got there, though, was far from what anyone could have expected. Alex Cobb did not look quite right against the Indians as he took the mound for the biggest game of his career. Nevertheless, though, he battled and gave the Rays exactly the type of outing they were looking for.
Throughout his big league time in 2011 and 2012, all you heard about Alex Cobb’s stuff was his eccentric split-change. It was Cobb’s only swing-and-miss pitch and his go-to offering whenever he was ahead of hitters or stuck in a jam, using it to force both strikeouts and weak contact. He had a solid sinker in the low-90′s that he commanded well down in the zone, but he was just like any other sinkerballer in that regard. He also threw a curveball, but it was a decent offering at best. Cobb had ordinary stuff but that one overbearing pitch, and that was the way he found success. In Wednesday’s game, though, Cobb saw his money pitch abandon him, something that would have hung him out to dry in past years. But between an outstanding mix of his pitches and the curveball he has refined over the past years, Cobb found a way to not only survive but keep the Indians off the board.
Cobb wasn’t nervous to be appearing in such a big game. Instead, he was amped up, certainly not a bad thing in and of itself. However, Cobb’s excitedness did manifest itself in a clear negative fashion throughout his outing: it led to him overthrowing all three of his pitches. Since returning from the disabled list on August 15th, Cobb has averaged 92.4 MPH on his sinker, 80.9 MPH on his curveball, and 86.9 MPH on his split-change according to Brooks Baseball. In this game, though, Cobb’s fastball velocity jumped to 93.7 MPH, his curve to 82.1 MPH, and his split-change to 88.9 MPH. Cobb’s average velocities for all three pitches represented his career-highs for any game in his career. Adding velocity can sometimes make pitches more effective, but in this game, it had the opposite result for Cobb’s fastball and split-change. Cobb threw his fastball harder than we have ever seen him throw it before, but as Cobb reached back for something extra, he lost his ability to command it down in the zone. It still featured good two-seam action, but its sink was often absent and Cobb could not always trust it to get him the type of weak contact on the ground in usually forces. His split-change, meanwhile, wasn’t just being thrown harder but 2 MPH harder, and the result was that it completely flattened out, losing the late bite that makes it so effective. Cobb’s curveball actually looked great at the higher velocity, showing sharp, tight break to mesmerize hitters and force several swings-and-misses, but he was not going to be able to survive with his curveball alone working. How did Cobb find a way to succeed?
As the game progressed, Cobb realized what kind of stuff he had. His situation was not ideal, but he used the way all three of his pitches were working to his advantage as much as possible. Cobb’s fastball was staying up so Cobb became content to leave it up in the zone, getting some called strikes and even jamming lefty hitters a few times with fastballs up-and-in. His split-change didn’t have its late fade, but Cobb was still able to command it down in the zone, and he did that quite effectively, not missing bats but keeping hitters off-balance and continuing to force grounders, including the double play off the bat of Asdrubal Cabrera that got him out of a bases-loaded jam in the 4th. And while Cobb was limited in what those two pitches could do, he made them play up because of outstanding sequencing. Cobb’s fastball wasn’t always a viable pitch to retire or even get ahead of hitters, but he used it to change batters’ eye levels and set up a hard curveball down for a strikeout (like he did against Carlos Santana to lead off the 6th) or a split-change for a groundball (like he did for the pair of groundouts that got him out of the 5th). Cobb worked with Jose Molina to use the stuff he had to beat hitters even when he wasn’t doing so in his conventional fashion, and he could not have done so any better.
When aces don’t have their best stuff, they find a way to keep their team in the game nonetheless. Cobb went a step further, not dominating yet departing with a 3-0 lead and 6.2 shutout frames in the books. Cobb was extremely effective most of his outing even through overthrowing eroded his fastball comand and split-change movement. Just imagine what the Red Sox will be in for when his stuff is entirely in order his next time out.