The Rays Tank: Breaking Down Alex Cobb's Collapse

Ed Zurga

Major league hitters are just too good to get beaten by the same approach too many times within a game, let alone within a season.

With 2 outs and nobody on in the 5th inning of Tuesday's game, Alex Cobb's 2013 season was at its peak. His ERA on the year stood at 1.53 as he was out-dueling one of the top pitchers in baseball in James Shields. His stuff certainly wasn't up to the level of Matt Moore, but he was pitching nearly as well as Rays fans had to thinking in the past of their heads that they might be seeing Cobb becoming another topflight pitcher right before our eyes. But before we knew it, it all came crashing down. Cobb allowed 4 run before the inning was through, turning a 2-0 lead into a 4-2 deficit as the Rays lost 8-2.

How did Cobb come apart so quickly? Well, as I discussed at Rays Colored Glasses, the key was his curveball. Through the first 5.2 innings of his start, Cobb had used his curveball to get seven called strikes on hitters, all on 0-0 or 0-1 counts. Overall, Cobb threw a curveball for the first pitch against 9 of the 21 hitters he faced to begin the game (42.9%) and 5 of 14 times (35.7%) on 0-1 counts (and 5 of 9 times when he didn't get the first strike on a first-pitch curveball). Those rates of 42.9% and 35.7% are remarkably close to the 40% and 36% clips respectively in which Cobb had thrown pitches on those counts in 2013 entering his start versus the Royals according to Brooks Baseball.

The issue is that Cobb's curveball is a good pitch but when he's throwing it on the first pitch, it stays in very hittable spots. Here's a graph, courtesy of Texas Leaguers, of the placement of Cobb's first-pitch curveballs entering Tuesday.

As you can see in the graph, a high percentage of those curveballs were in locations where hitters would destroy them if they saw them coming. Cobb has been able to get by using his curveball so often in those counts because hitters haven't been expecting him to throw curveballs in those spots, keeping them off-balance. But that can only work for so long. The way to counteract a pitcher throwing a ton of first-pitch curveballs is quite simple: you sit curveball on the first pitch. The Royals finally started doing that with 2 outs in the 6th inning and it changed the entire game.

Eric Hosmer doubled on a first-pitch curveball from Cobb before Lorenzo Cain singled on a 0-1 breaking ball to make it a 2-1 game. Cobb didn't throw a single curveball to the next three batters, and you have to think that it was because he knew the Royals had his number on the curve. Cobb wound up getting behind in the count with a fastball out of the zone all three times, leaving him in the uncomfortable position of throwing 1-0 changeups with his fastball and curveball both exhausted, and the Royals drilled them for a Mike Moustakas homer, a Jeff Francoeur double, and a Salvador Perez single, making the Rays' 2-0 lead into a 4-2 deficit in the blink of an eye.

So far in 2013, Cobb has found a ton of success by going to curveballs a high proportion of the time in 0-0 and 0-1 counts. However, especially given that Cobb wasn't fooling anyone based on location but only on his decision to throw breaking balls, it was inevitable that the league was going to adjust, and now Cobb's task is to adjust back. If you were looking for an obvious cause for regression from Alex Cobb from his outstanding early-season numbers, this is it. At the same time, though, Cobb is a very good pitcher and he will find a way to find success mixing his pitches differently. It will be interesting to see how he reacts when he takes the field in his next start.

Here are your links for today:

-The Rays designated Shelley Duncan for assignment to add Luke Scott to their roster. Scott went 0 for 4 in his season debut on Tuesday. Joe Maddon said that it was unfortunate that Duncan had to be DFA'd, but the Rays really had no other option, and now they just have to hope Duncan remains in the organization. He would have to pass through waivers and accept an optional assignment in order to so.

-Over at Fangraphs, Carson Cistulli worked his magic giving a scouting report of Dodgers infielder Skip Schumaker as a pitcher. As long as you're not expecting serious baseball analysis, it's a must-read.

-Mike Newman at Fangraphs talked with Stetson Allie about his conversion from the mound to first base, and it's interesting stuff. Allie has gone from pitcher bust to a potential top position player prospect, at least within the Pirates organization.

For the first time as a professional, he’s experiencing success and is excited about the future. With right-handed power at a premium, look for Allie to push for placement in the Pirates top 10 prospects by year’s end. If he continues to improve at his present pace, Allie will also be mentioned as one of baseball’s better first base prospects.

From a Rays perspective, the article made me think about whether Justin O'Conner could make the opposite type of transition if he continues to falter at the plate, going from slugging catcher to a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher.

-RaysProspects may be gone, but the @RaysProspects Twitter account is still in full force. RaysProspects noted that former Rays minor leaguers Michael Sheridan, Shane Dyer, and David Newmann are all on the independent Laredo Lumers in the American Association, calling it a "Montgomery Biscuits reunion in Texas." Pretty amazing, and good luck to that trio as they attempt to battle their way back into affiliated ball.

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