One of the most famous stories of Rays lore is that James Shields taught Scott Kazmir his changeup, helping him go from a good pitcher in 2005 and 2006 to a dominant one in 2007. The data doesn’t exactly support that–Kazmir had thrown a changeup since his rookie season in 2004, and it never became any more effective after Shields became his teammate. The subsequent five seasons, though, showed that the spirit of the story was exactly in the right place. Every Rays pitcher who came up from Shields’ first great season in 2007 to his final season in Tampa Bay in 2012 worked with Shields at some point to improve his changeup and/or curveball. Jim Hickey deserves plenty of credit for helping the Rays develop one of the best rotations in baseball, but James Shields was right there working alongside him, providing his fellow pitchers with a teammate eager to help them get better. It is no coincidence that the Rays’ starters started becoming renowned for their changeups during Shields’ tenure with the team, and Shields also deserves some credit for helping several Rays pitchers with their curveballs. After Shields was traded, though, the Rays had to wonder who would take his place as he moved on.
James Shields was never consistently called the Rays’ ace during his tenure with the team. Shields was quite possibly the Rays’ most reliable pitcher, but he was Scott Kazmir’s sidekick from 2006 to 2009 and then David Price took over for Kazmir in 2010. Why was it such a big deal when Shields left? Wasn’t David Price a better pitcher anyway? Price is a better pitcher than Shields and certainly an ace, but he could never be the teacher that Shields was to the Rays’ younger pitchers because of the type of pitcher he is. Price throws a cutter, a curveball, and a changeup, but none of those offerings became a plus pitch. Price has instead always relied heavily on his excellent fastball, but that is not a strategy that works for most pitchers. With that in mind, the Rays were going to need another pitcher to step up and help the newcomers along. Who would it be? As it turns out, Shields’ heir is Alex Cobb. We heard on Friday that Cobb taught Jake Odorizzi his split-changeup and the early results have been very good. Odorizzi struggled for years to find an effective secondary pitch, but with Cobb’s help, he finally found one. That could change everything for Odorizzi, and if it does, Cobb will deserve much of the credit. If Cobb is anything like Shields, we will be hearing more similar stories in the coming years.
The comparison between Cobb and Shields goes quite far. Both are right-handed pitches drafted out of high school. Shields is 6’4″ while Cobb is 6’3″. Both use a changeup as their money pitch and developed a good curveball over time as well. But the craziest similarity is their career tracks: both were considered good, not great prospects their entire careers then came up to the big leagues and pitched exactly to expectations in their first full seasons. Shields managed a 95 ERA+ in 2006, just a tick behind Cobb’s 96 ERA+ in 2012, and everyone thought they could be solid number three or four starters for the Rays for years to come. Then both Shields and Cobb broke out in their second full years, making everyone realize that their fastball velocities did not tell nearly the whole story about their talent levels. Could the Rays find a pitcher any closer to Shields than that?
Alex Cobb has his advantages and disadvantages over James Shields at this point. He pitched as good as Shields did at any point of his career in just his second full season, but he also tossed just 143.2 innings, a far cry from Shields’ 215 innings in 2007. Cobb still has work to do to become a Shields-quality pitcher, and it seems crazy to compare him to Shields when he has not yet thrown 150 innings in a season in the major leagues, let alone 200. However, Cobb’s leadership and ability to teach has already come out, and his ability on the mound just continues looking better. If there is any pitcher on the Rays’ staff who fills the role vacated by Shields, it is Alex Cobb.