Most of baseball has not yet gotten the memo, but Alex Cobb‘s dominance is real. While Cobb managed a 2.76 ERA, an 8.4 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 143.1 innings pitched in 2013, we wondered whether he could sustain it. As this season has gone, however, the questions surrounding him have dissipated. In his 133 innings this year, his ERA is just behind at 2.98 while his peripherals have actually improved. He has struck out 8.7 batters per 9 innings, walked just 2.6, and allowed just 0.6 home runs per 9. His last ten starts have been especially dominant as he has a 1.55 ERA and a 67-17 strikeout to walk ratio in 63.2 innings pitched. The way Cobb has pitched, seemingly the only thing that could possibly stop him from being the Tampa Bay Rays’ ace is the fact that Chris Archer has taken a huge step forward as well. There is one other factor, though, that has not crossed our minds too often but probably should: how few innings Cobb has thrown the last two years.
Alex Cobb is set to make five more starts for the Rays this season, and he has a daunting task ahead of him if he hopes to set his career-high for innings pitched. Between his 133 big league innings and 5 more from rehab appearances in the minors, he is up to 138 innings, 39.2 IP short of his career-best of 177.2 from 2012. In order to get there, he would have to average 8 innings in his remaining outings, and it is extremely unlikely that he will actually pull that off. Realistically, he wil likely finish the year with a touch over 170 frames, which would be marked improvement from his 151.2 innings pitched last season. If he makes a similar innings jump from 2014 to 2015, he would end up right around 200 IP, giving him a chance to earn ace recognition around baseball for the first time if he accompanies it with the necessary results. It’s one thing to say that, though, and another entirely to see him actually get there.
In four of the last five years–excluding only that 2012 season–Cobb has missed significant time with an injury. We can say that his rib issue in 2011 and his concussion problems from 2013 were completely out of his control, but we cannot ignore the oblique strains that caused him to miss time in both 2010 and this season. Cobb has proved himself to be effective, and the way he carries himself on the mound screams “workhorse,” but can a pitcher really be considered durable when he has yet to throw 180 innings in any year? The injury problems that have held him back are one concern, and we also have to wonder whether he will wear down at the end of the season if he does finally have a healthy year. Imagine this scenario: the Rays return to the postseason, but after logging over 200 innings in the regular season, Cobb runs out of gas in the playoffs and has to be removed from the Rays’ roster because of an injury like shoulder fatigue after an ill-fated Game 1 start. Given that Cobb has not even come close to that type of workload, the probability of something along those lines occurring is higher than we would care to admit.
Hopefully this September, Alex Cobb will show no signs of slowing down as he tops 170 innings for the first time since 2012. If he does so, it will not tell us anything definitive, but at least it will give us another data point, along with his performance and his ability to provide length when he is on the mound, that points in the direction of him being just fine going to 200 innings and beyond. Alex Cobb has turned himself into a great pitcher, but this question of his durability is the last thing holding him back from being considered among baseball’s best. It will be something to watch for next season, and Rays fans have to hope that it will among the principal reasons for paranoia amid a Rays season in which a lot less goes wrong.