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Tampa Bay Rays: Why Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly Needed Surgery

By Robbie Knopf
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Alex Cobb is set to go under the knife for Tommy John Surgery on Thursday while Drew Smyly‘s shoulder surgery for a torn labrum should follow within a few weeks. The losses of both pitchers were devastating–Cobb had entered the season as the Tampa Bay Rays’ ace while expectations were sky-high for Smyly after his dominant finish to 2014. Instead, all the Rays will receive from the pair this season is Smyly’s 2.70 ERA in his three starts–ironically the same ERA that Matt Moore posted in his two starts before surgery last year.

Is there a reason why the Rays lost two talented pitchers for more than a season in such a short span? Was it just bad luck or did their medical staff do something wrong? That last question is not something that we have sufficient information to answer. However, there is an overarching reason that can explain why Cobb, Smyly, and many others needed surgery: if you are exceeding expectations, it does not come without a cost.

Some pitchers that have recently undergone Tommy John Surgery were hard throwers, the type of pitchers that we would expect in our minds to need surgery at some point. Maybe that expectation isn’t grounded in reality, but we can say to ourselves that the human elbow can only throw the ball 95 MPH so many times before it gives out and needs to be repaired. However, neither Cobb nor Smyly qualifies for that, and it seems strange that they are the ones going down.

That leads us to our next critical question: why have Cobb and Smyly pitched like aces recently? Cobb was supposed to be a number three or four starter (we were saying as much after 2012) before pitching like an ace the last two seasons. Smyly, meanwhile, only looked like an upper-echelon starter for his 10 starts with the Rays, but it wasn’t just fans and outsiders who were on the bandwagon. Managers were saying that they would rather face David Price than Smyly because of how difficult it is to pick up the ball out of Smyly’s hand.

A popular misconception is that a pitcher’s success has nothing to do with his ability to stay healthy. In reality, we can’t say that the recent success of Cobb and Smyly and the fact that they needed surgery are independent–it’s in fact the opposite, they are directly intertwined. The formula for success is simple in Major League Baseball: you have electric stuff and locate it well. Some pitchers have truly immaculate command and can thrive with less velocity, but those cases are few and far between–many of them are in the Hall of Fame.

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When you are a pitcher with the arsenal of Alex Cobb or Drew Smyly and less than Greg Maddux-esque command, you are supposed to be a little inconsistent. There will be days when your command is on and days when it is off, and in the latter case, you will get hit hard. The overall results that teams hope for is an ERA somewhere around 3.50 or 4.00 depending on your home ballpark and eventually close to 200 innings. There is certainly a value in that, but teams want those pitchers to fill out the middles or backs of their rotations, certainly not the fronts. They are good, but they will rarely blow you away.

With that in mind, what are we supposed to think when a pitcher whose stuff doesn’t wow us ends up looking like a frontline starter? There are always exceptions, people who will defy the odds, and time will tell who those exceptions are. By definition, though, exceptions are not the rule, and most pitchers exceeding expectations will either regress or get injured. Maybe they are throwing too many secondary pitches or pitching out of a deceptive arm slot. In either case, it leaves them more susceptible to injury and eventually surgery.

The red flags were right in front of us the whole time, but we wanted to ignore them. We wanted to say that Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly were nice stories or that the Tampa Bay Rays had found two undervalued pitchers. Instead, the converse is true–the same mechanics and pitch usage that led Cobb and Smyly to dominance also led them to injury–and that fact will affect them beyond the time they miss from surgery.

Both Cobb and Smyly will hopefully return to full health, but when they do, the Rays will have a critical choice to make for each of them. Either the team can change their mechanics and/or pitch usage and risk their ability to continue dominating hitters or they can keep both factors the same and set them up for an eventual second surgery. Cobb and Smyly were never supposed to be this good, and now–and quite possibly in the future–they will pay the cost for reaching that level in an incorrect way.

Next: The Undercards: Enny Romero Sharp in Triple-A Return

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