Alex Cobb is off to a hot start (credit: Al Drago / indyweek.com)
Though Desmond Jennings, Brandon Guyer, and, yes, Jose Lobaton have carried the offense for the Durham Bulls so far, the two biggest stars may be on the mound. A pair of Alexes, Cobb and Torres, have dominated the International League through a combined seven starts. Alex Cobb is 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA in four of those starts, racking up 29 strikeouts (good for the IL lead) and six walks in 22 innings. Opponents have hit just .215 off him so far this year, and despite not lighting up the radar gun, he's gotten better as he's risen through the system. Here's a closer look at how he's been getting it done in 2011:
Fastball: It's the most pedestrian of his three offerings, a 90-93 mph pitch delivered from a not-very-imposing 6-2/195 frame. It's got some sinking action which helps lead to a decent groundball rate, but it doesn't have much late life and doesn't really "explode" on hitters. He recognizes this, of course, so his plan of attack isn't to try to over-power hitters with his heater. Rather, he uses it to set up his effective off-speed pitches.
That aspect of his game could use some work. While he's generally around the plate with his it, and he isn't afraid to come inside, his fastball command rates only as average at it's best right now. He hasn't thrown as many first-pitch strikes as I expected given his stat-line this season, and while he isn't exclusively a first-pitch fastball guy, he's had some trouble getting ahead in the count and has to go to his off-speed stuff to get strikes. That's both a blessing (as he's confident in his ability to throw any pitch in any count) and a curse (at the major-league level, pitching backwards can only get you so far). While he's able to stay out of the very middle of the plate, he hasn't quite been painting on the corners and got in trouble in his last start when he left it up in the zone.
Split-Change: This pitch is his bread-and-butter. A hybrid split-finger + change-up, he throws it around 85 mph and has generated a huge number of swings and misses with it so far this season. The phrase "the bottom drops out of it" could not be more appropriate, as it falls off the table late to fool hitters. Because it lacks the armside run of a traditional change-up (meaning it doesn't tail a bit back toward right-handed hitters), he has no qualms about using it against both lefties and righties, and it loses no effectiveness. Here's a comparison to his fastball to show how it can fool hitters with the similar delivery:
(uploading gifs turns out to be a huge pain, so here are just the videos. They're both the same two pitches, just given side-by-side and top-and-bottom. For whatever reason the change-up sort of looks like a curve in the small box. Here's the raw video of the Changeup if you're interested.)
Cobb generally commands this pitch well, keeping it down in the zone, often having it wind up in the dirt. He's been able to throw it for strikes, but changeups are pitches that you want to miss up in the zone with. While not perfect, he does a good job of starting it at the knees or just above and having it dive out of the zone. This is where fastball command becomes important, because if he can consistently throw fastballs for strikes around the knees, his split-change will be all the more effective because it will look like it's a fastball coming in for a strike.
I was a little bit concerned that the lack of a lack of big velocity difference (it's 5-8 mph slower than this fastball) could prove to be a problem, but I think the pitch has enough movement to stand fine on its own. It's still a question mark just because of how unconventional it is, but not normal doesn't equate to bad. Neil Solondz, the Durham radio broadcaster, compared it to Carl Pavano's changeup. One of Pavano's problems, at least to my knowledge, is that lack of velocity between his fastball and changeup. As Joe Morgan would say, I haven't see Pavano pitch enough, but my guess is that Cobb's has better movement.
Curveball: Cobb surprised me with how he used this pitch. While he had trouble spotting his fastball for a first-pitch strike, he was able to drop in a curveball on the first pitch on a few occasions. In his best start of the season, the home opener against Norfolk, he threw it for a first-pitch strike five times. Like the split-change, he uses this pitch indiscriminately, though all of the swings and misses on this pitch in that game came from righties. It's got good break to it, but it's more of a loopy breaker than a sharp one.
Overall impressions: Cobb has been impressive in triple-A even beyond his statline, but there's still stuff to work on for the 23-year-old. He's been working on a cutter as a way to keep hitters off his regular four-seamer, but it's still a work in progress. He does a good job of pitching backwards to keep hitters guessing, but I'd like to see him use his fastball more (at least for now) to help develop further his ability to command it. I haven't heard of this happening in the Rays system, but I wonder if the organization might put a limit on how many split-changes he can throw for a few starts so he can learn to succeed without it and resist over-reliance on it.
He may not have the ace ceiling like others in the system, but he has a refined repertoire and should be able to survive as a #3, 4, or 5 starter even in the AL East. His split-change is his most impressive pitch, and while it's not a gimmick, it remains to be seen if it can remain effective as more advanced hitters see it multiple times in a game or season. If he can't crack the rotation for whatever reason, I think the bullpen would be a nice fallback for him, where he'd be roughly a Dan Wheeler type (very solid, but not dominant strikeout and walk numbers) with fewer home runs. Should Jeff Niemann continues to struggle in St. Pete while Cobb keeps producing for Durham, it's easy to see a "Free Alex Cobb" campaign starting. There's certainly things to like with Cobb, but with only four regular-season triple-A starts in his career, there's also still room to grow.