I was fortunate enough to witness three Rays spring training games in person this past weekend, and I come back to RCG (and New Jersey) with some interesting things to talk about. I had several different unique experiences while I was in Port Charlotte and Fort Myers which I’ve started writing about, but in addition I did some extensive scouting on the Rays players I saw at the games. I’ll start today with my observations on Alex Cobb, the Rays’ starting pitcher on Friday afternoon versus the Baltimore Orioles.
Before we get to the scouting information, let’s do a quick recap of what I previously knew and believed about Cobb. Last month I did a whole season preview for Cobb based on stats on Pitch F/X data, and to summarize that article in a sentence, Cobb is by no means a dominant pitcher, but thanks to an eccentric and plus split-change, a deceptive delivery, and great control, Cobb has the ability to be a solid pitcher at the back end of a major league rotation despite average fastball velocity. Now let’s get to what I saw from Cobb (from my seats just to the third base side of home plate), with the disclaimer that it’s still early in spring training.
The first thing that stood out was the lack of velocity from Cobb. It topped out at 89 MPH on the board at Charlotte Sports Park and was usually 86-87. From the Pitch F/X data at that link above, we saw that Cobb featured both a fastball and a sinker in his repertoire. I saw that on Friday as well. Most of his 87 MPH fastballs were pitches with nice tail away from right-handed batters but with little sink. When he dropped down to 86 MPH, his pitches had a little less tail, but some nice late sink. His 86 MPH fastball was his most consistently effective pitch on the day, although he was at his best on an 87 MPH fastball with excellent run and still the nice late sink (like his sinker from the Pitch F/X data) and he baffled Orioles outfield prospect Xavier Avery when he showed similar movement at 89 MPH. However, most of the times he hit even 88 MPH, his fastball was straight and he had a ton of problems with control. We know that 88-89 isn’t impressive velocity, but the reason that Cobb had a lot of problems with control in the first inning was that he was attempting to reach back for more velocity. The worst was when he threw an 87 MPH fastball that was supposed to tail to the inside corner but instead hit Nolan Reimold in the jaw. Luckily for Reimold, the pitch got a lot of the ear flap of his helmet and he got away with only a chipped tooth, still nothing to smile at. Once Cobb got to exclusively the 86-87 range with his fastballs, he was mostly fine both in terms of movement and control. Hopefully he’ll gain velocity as the spring rolls along and be able to control his fastball and get the nice movement as well.
Cobb’s split-change was an enigma on the day. He was clearly working on his fastball, but he was mixing in a few 83 MPH pitches that seemed to be straight changeups. In any event, they were very extremely ineffective and if Cobb is working on a conventional changeup, he has a long way to go. In terms of his split-change, Cobb ranged from 77 MPH to 81 MPH with essentially the same sharp movement down and away from right-handed batters. The speed difference when the pitch registered in the high-70’s was nice, but I like his split-change best at 81 MPH because it didn’t lose any movement and because it looked more like his fastball. Especially at 77 MPH, hitters saw Cobb’s split-change well and even though it moved acutely, they weren’t swinging at it. It remained nasty per usual at 81 MPH, but it still didn’t get too many swings and misses. The key for Cobb is going to be to set it up his split-change with his fastball and to throw it hard enough that it looks like his fastball coming out of his hand. I would still call it a plus pitch, but after Cobb used it ad nauseam in 2011 (35% of his pitches) and hitters have a clear idea of how it moves, how effective it proves to be is conditional upon his fastball.
Finally, Cobb threw exactly one curveball, a 73 MPH offering that was loopy at best and hanged high in the zone. He was lucky it wasn’t hit a long way. Once again, Cobb was clearly focusing on his fastball, but his curve has to be better than that.
Cobb was recently sent down to minor league camp, and that makes a lot of sense. He looks like your typical Quad-A soft-tosser right now because of his lack of velocity, and his trouble with control at comparatively higher velocities with his fastball doesn’t make matters any better. I still love his split-change, but he needs to have an above-average if not plus fastball to succeed in the major leagues. Remember that Cobb is coming back from rib surgery, and even though it was such a bizarre injury, we don’t want to take anything for granted when evaluating Cobb. Cobb still shows the flashes of a big league 4th starter. When his fastball had excellent late bite at 89 and his split-change was unhittable at 81, he looked like an awfully good major league pitcher. But he has to get more consistency with his entire arsenal and show the ability to beat hitters not as a soft-tosser but as a big league pitcher who can beat you in a variety of ways. Cobb’s didn’t allow a run in 3 innings on Friday, but I was disappointed in what I saw. Cobb has to maximize his abilities to make it as a big league pitcher, and on Friday he didn’t do that at all. Good luck to Cobb as he hopes to put himself back together and return to being to solid big league pitcher we’ve already seen him be.