NOTE: This article was originally published on FanGraphs on November 30, 2017.
Of the pitchers hitting the free-agent market this winter, Alex Cobb is not likely to receive the most fanfare.
Aces Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta will command contracts north of $100 million. Closers Wade Davis and Greg Holland will do their best to secure four-year deals with big price tags. The whole world is watching every development in the Shohei Ohtani saga. Hell, among midmarket starting pitchers, MLB Trade Rumors predicts Lance Lynn to receive a more lucrative contract than Alex Cobb.
Cobb, who broke in as a full-time starter with Tampa Bay in 2012, has historically shown great promise and good-but-not-great results. He averaged 2.5 fWAR from 2012-2014, lost the next two seasons to Tommy John surgery, then came back with a 2.4 fWAR season in 2017. Cobb has never started 30 games in a season, nor has he ever thrown 200 innings. These facts are concerning to some, but I would argue that he is one of the wisest investments one can make this offseason.
Alex Cobb has evolved as a pitcher through pitch selection. Cobb has a great curveball. You either already know that, or you’re about to find out. He also mixes in a four-seam fastball, a splitter, and a sinker. Right now, curveballs are all the rage in baseball, resulting in tremendous success for pitchers like Rich Hill, Trevor Bauer, and Lance McCullers. They throw their curveballs so often that we can consider the breaking ball, not the fastball, to be their primary pitch. Like Hill, Bauer, and McCullers, Cobb has a quality breaking ball, so it stands to reason he should throw it more often and perhaps eschew his mediocre offerings. With Brooks Baseball, we can track the usage rate on each of his pitches throughout the season.
Look at the first couple data points for the usage rates on his pitches, and then compare them to his points at the end of the season. It’s clear that Cobb began to realize he works best by using the fastball and the curveball exclusively, so he increased his usage rate on those pitches and gradually phased out the splitter and sinker.
The question for Cobb is whether this was a good idea. In Cobb’s career, he’s only posted a strikeout-to-walk percentage (K-BB%) above 15% twice, and only ever so slightly so. He’s not bad in that regard, but it’s not where he makes his bread and butter. Fortunately for Cobb, he is one of the better pitchers in the league at inducing ground balls, which we know is favorable contact. The more grounders Cobb induces, the better he gets, and his curveball is a ground-ball machine. Consider the correlation between the rate at which Cobb increased his curveball usage and his ground-ball rate (GB%) throughout the season:
That’s a pretty strong correlation. It seems that Cobb is ready to join the Hills, Bauers, and McCullerses of the world and ride a high breaking-ball-usage rate to breakout success. Of course, it’s never going to be that easy for Cobb or anybody, but let’s go through one of his starts and parse what we can from the good and bad.
On September 4, Cobb pitched against a red-hot Minnesota Twins lineup and had one of his better starts of the season. His first batter of the game was second-half monster and fly-ball connoisseur Brian Dozier, and he managed to get him out on the first pitch.
It’s been proven that batters from the “fly-ball revolution” can be neutralized if you throw them high fastballs. These hitters are swinging up to lift the ball, but it’s difficult to put much lift on a high pitch coming in fast.
We’re going to focus on the curveball throughout this piece, but here is a fun fact about his fastball. Cobb’s heater sits at 92 MPH and had a spin rate of 2101 RPM this season, which seems pretty pedestrian. However, among starting pitchers with at least 100 batted-ball events involving fastballs, Alex Cobb’s has the 31st lowest exit velocity (87.1 MPH). To put this in perspective, that’s a better mark than James Paxton, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Jon Gray, Justin Verlander, and Luis Severino.
Cobb was smart to bait Dozier here, and he reaped the benefits with a first-pitch out to begin the ballgame.
In the second inning, we see Cobb pitching out of the stretch and unleashing a curveball that Ehire Adrianza buries into the ground. This will be the common theme today.
I mentioned earlier that Cobb doesn’t have the K-BB% of Chris Sale or Corey Kluber, so every once in awhile he walks batters. The common thought is that Cobb, who throws so many breaking balls, might end up behind in the count thanks to misplaced curves. Then, to get back in the count, he throws his 93 MPH fastball in the zone, which gets crushed by every hitter expecting it.
This would be a bad habit for Cobb to fall into, but he certainly didn’t in 2017. Consider the list of pitchers who threw the most curveballs while behind in the count this season (via Baseball Savant):There’s Cobb, in fifth place, not far behind Rich Hill himself. All five of these guys have great curveballs, so it makes sense for them to Trust the Process™ and continue dropping the hammer rather than submitting to doom and throwing a predictable fastball in the zone.
After walking the leadoff batter to start the third inning, Cobb knew Joe Mauer could make him pay. So rather than giving Mauer the fastball he wanted, Cobb began the at-bat by dropping a curveball for a strike that even froze the great Mauer.
This changed the whole at-bat, because now Mauer didn’t know whether Cobb would be coming at him with the curve or the fastball. Cobb took advantage of his opportunity, used the fastball to get him in an ideal 1-2 count, and then he went back the curveball and got Mauer to ground into a double play.
Cobb is comfortable throwing the curveball both behind in the count and with runners on base, so he can reap the rewards and induce quite a few double plays. That is an asset. Additionally, Cobb is comfortable throwing his curve from both the stretch (as we saw against Adrianza and Mauer) and from his big windup, as you can see here.
Eddie Rosario is a good hitter who made great strides late in the season, but even he found himself to be another ground-ball victim of Cobb’s curveball.
By the fifth inning, Cobb was almost through his second time against the Twins’ batting order. At this point, they weren’t sure whether to expect the curveball or the fastball, so Cobb was often ahead in the count. Here, he has Eduardo Escobar in a 1-2 count and throws a high fastball that Escobar swings right through.
Everyone in the park was expecting Cobb to throw the curveball to finish Escobar off. From a look at Escobar’s swing, it’s safe to say he was expecting a curveball himself. Cobb’s fastball isn’t necessarily anything special, but the way he uses it to pitch off the curveball can be.
With two outs in the inning, Cobb faced his 18th batter (which would complete his second time through against the opposing batting order). He quickly got Ehire Adrianza into an 0-2 count and then unleashed his best curveball of the night, which Adrianza pounded into the ground for another easy out.
At this point, Cobb had gone through the opposing order twice, pitched five innings, and only given up one run. Teams around the league are beginning to realize that most of their starters simply shouldn’t go out for the third time through the order, even if they are rolling. The Houston Astros just rode using Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton in tandems all the way to the World Series. Those three guys are valuable pieces, and if Cobb is utilized liked this, so is he.
Unfortunately for Cobb, his pitch count was at 85, so his manager decided to bring him out for another inning. The Twins got their third look at Cobb, and I don’t need to cite the statistics to you about what happens at this point. Hitters are smart, so they can pick up on the tendencies of a pitcher if they see him so many times. Alex Cobb, as great at he was through five innings and two times through the order, is no exception to this rule.
Here is Joe Mauer taking an 0-2 curveball from Cobb and driving it into the gap in center for a double.
The important question here is, “was that Cobb’s fault or just a good piece of hitting from Joe Mauer?” Of course, the answer in baseball is always going to be both, but you can see in the embedded GIF that Cobb doesn’t necessarily leave the pitch up. In fact, if you compare it to the curveball that Cobb threw earlier in the game to get Mauer to ground into a double play, it doesn’t look much different — maybe an inch or two higher, at worst. The bigger change is Mauer, who swings like a guy fighting to stay alive in the first GIF, then like he knew exactly what was coming and how to handle it in the second.
This is the “third time through the order” effect in a microcosm. Pitches that fool batters earlier in the game become cookies, so the key is to relieve your pitcher while his pitches still fool the batters. Cobb should not be penalized by us for giving up a double to Mauer there; in 2018, analytical teams will be bringing in a new pitcher in these situations.
In this sense, Cobb is the first free-agent test case for the newest pitching trend in the industry — the tandem starter — one who pitches twice through the order, hopefully gets 15-18 outs, and then gives way to someone else. The Mets, who hired progressive Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway to be their new manager, have made it clear that all starters not named deGrom or Syndergaard will be shielded from facing lineups more than twice in a game. Baseball has never experienced a shortage of five-inning pitchers in its history, but these changes in pitcher usage are leading to new premiums for these specialists.
It’s as simple as this: every team wants to stock their pitching staff with Alex Cobbs. To be clear, every team wants a Justin Verlander, but there is only one Justin Verlander; even horses Chris Sale and Corey Kluber showed significant wear and tear in October. To combat this dilemma, the Houston Astros deployed Lance McCullers, Brad Peacock, and Charlie Morton in five-inning tandems and rode them all the way to the last out of Game 7.
I expect Alex Cobb will fit into this role quite nicely for whichever team he signs with.