Is Alex Cobb the Rays ace?

Jeff Griffith-US PRESSWIRE

Alex Cobb might have flown under the radar in 2013, but the 26 year-old hurler had an excellent season. It's time for David Price to pass the torch; Alex Cobb is the true Rays ace.

Alex Cobb had an excellent 2013 season. While he was limited to 22 starts and 143.1 innings due to a line drive off the bat of Eric Hosmer, he led the Rays in ERA and strikeout rate. He made two more starts in the postseason, throwing 6.2 shutout innings against the Cleveland Indians in the Wild Card game, and throwing five innings against the Boston Red Sox, allowing two runs in a no-decision.

Of the 107 starters that threw at least 140 innings in 2013, Cobb's 76 xFIP- was tied for 8th with Clayton Kershaw. Just ahead of him were Chris Sale and Anibal Sanchez. His ERA- of 73 was 9th in the majors, just behind Max Scherzer and a shade ahead of Sale.

Though 2013 was a breakout season for Cobb, he's been very strong since he entered the big leagues in 2011. He possesses a career xFIP- of 83, which is tied with bona fide aces such as Justin Verlander and Scherzer.

Cobb doesn't possess the fastball that Price or other ace pitchers do. He averaged 91 miles per hour with his fastball, compared to the 93.5 Price averaged in 2013 (down from 95.5 the previous year). Unlike Price, who throws his fastball or cutter on over 70 percent of his pitches, Cobb throws a fastball on less than 50 percent of his pitches, relying heavily on a splitter and curveball.

Cobb's splitter, which Pitch f/x classifies as a changeup, had an 18.3 percent swinging strike rate in 2013. To put that in perspective, Matt Harvey didn't have a pitch with a swinging strike rate that high. When batters did put the splitter in play, they managed a meager .215/.270/.308 line. Though his curveball only has an 8.0 percent swinging strike rate, batters tend to put the pitch on the ground. It possesses a 74.5 percent groundball rate.

182953132Photo credit: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The biggest concern about Cobb's game is his inability to miss bats in the zone. His career Zone-Contact rate is 91.8 percent, one of the highest marks in the game. Even the splitter has a Zone-Contact rate of 90.8 percent. A few pitchers with similar Zone-Contact rates are Mike Pelfrey, Vance Worley, and Jeremy Guthrie, hardly top-line arms. Of the 30 pitchers with the highest Zone-Contact rates since 2011, only six have an ERA- better than the major league average. A.J. Burnett is the closest one to an ace. With the exception of control artists with elite chase pitches such as Adam Wainwright or the 2013 version of Felix Hernandez, ace pitchers don't have Zone-Contact rates north of 90 percent.

Still, Cobb's splitter might be that elite chase pitch. It's O-Zone Swing percentage of 51.8 percent is higher than King Felix's changeup or Wainwright's curveball. His career walk rate of 7.7 percent isn't on their level, but he's been able to generate a superior groundball rate. Since 2011, only four starters have a higher groundball rate than Cobb's 56.7 percent.

Here's a look at pitchers from 1994-2013 who have produced a K/9 rate between 7.0 and 8.5 and a BB/9 rate between 1.8 and 3.0 in their first three seasons while throwing at least 300 innings.


Rk Player ERA+ SO/9 BB/9 IP From To Age
1 Roy Oswalt 152 8.25 2.06 502.0 2001 2003 23-25
2 Kevin Millwood 128 8.13 2.70 453.2 1997 1999 22-24
3 Daniel Hudson 128 7.15 2.30 336.0 2009 2011 22-24
4 Justin Verlander 121 7.08 2.98 399.0 2005 2007 22-24
5 Jered Weaver 121 7.27 2.58 460.2 2006 2008 23-25
6 Tommy Hanson 120 8.43 2.89 460.1 2009 2011 22-24
7 Madison Bumgarner 118 7.93 2.07 325.2 2009 2011 19-21
8 Jaime Garcia 116 7.12 2.94 374.0 2008 2011 21-24
9 James Shields 113 7.27 1.85 554.2 2006 2008 24-26
10 Alex Cobb 113 7.50 2.87 332.1 2011 2013 23-25
11 Chris Young 112 7.76 2.93 380.1 2004 2006 25-27
12 Felix Hernandez 111 8.08 2.63 465.2 2005 2007 19-21
13 Wei-Yin Chen 104 7.04 2.62 329.2 2012 2013 26-27
14 Patrick Corbin 103 7.53 2.25 315.1 2012 2013 22-23
15 Javier Vazquez 91 7.40 2.99 544.2 1998 2000 21-23
16 Mike Minor 90 7.88 2.88 302.2 2010 2012 22-24
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/15/2013.

That's a pretty good group of pitchers, and Cobb is right in the middle of them. Notice that the pitcher right next to Cobb on this chart is James Shields. Cobb has a higher walk rate than Shields' 5.8 percent career mark, and time will tell if he has the same durability, but he gets more groundballs and as a consequence, allows fewer home runs.

There are some other similarities between Cobb and Shields. Neither has an overpowering fastball, and they each rely heavily on secondary stuff. Shields loves his changeup and cutter, both of which are excellent pitches, and Cobb has the aforementioned splitter and curveball.

Cobb isn't a typical ace, and his inability to miss bats in the zone might limit his future performance, but signs point to him being a very solid pitcher.

If the Rays do indeed trade away Price this offseason, getting more innings from Cobb should soften the blow. After all, Cobb was the better pitcher in 2013. Here's a table comparing their performances.

Pitcher K% BB% SwStr% GB% ERA- xFIP-
David Price 20.4 3.7 7.9 44.9 88 82
Alex Cobb 23.2 7.8 9.2 55.8 73 76

Cobb has a convincing edge in every category except for walk rate. It's not just 2013 either. While Cobb hasn't thrown as many innings, their numbers over the previous three years are quite similar.

Pitcher K% BB% SwStr% GB% ERA- xFIP-
David Price 23.0 6.0 8.2 47.4 81 80
Alex Cobb 20.2 7.7 8.3 56.7 88 83

Going forward, Steamer has very similar projections for Price and Cobb in 2014.

Pitcher Innings K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP fWAR
David Price 192 8.0 2.3 3.42 3.27 3.8
Alex Cobb 192 7.7 3.0 3.55 3.31 3.4

Pretty encouraging, isn't it? Even if Price wears a Rays uniform in 2014, he might not be their best pitcher.

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