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What to expect from Alex Cobb in 2015

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Alex Cobb had great 2013 and 2014 seasons, but now that David Price is gone, what can we expect from him in his first full season as the Rays ace?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Underrated and overlooked. An approximation of an ace. Many writers and fans expressed their feelings in different ways about Alex Cobb in the past few years. For Jeffrey Long from Beyond the Boxscore, "Cobb doesn't get the credit he deserves." On a fantasy level, Nicholas Minnix from Rotographs considers him as "the type of pitcher [he]'d target in just about every league". After his 2014 season, there will surely be more focus on Alex Cobb, as he will be the leader of the Rays rotation. So, what can we expect from him this year?

Since his first full season as a Rays pitcher in 2012, Alex Cobb produced good numbers, averaging a 3.33 FIP and 2.4 WAR/per year. He was not picked for the All-Star game or voted as the American League Cy Young winner, yet his statistics were well above the league's average, as suggested by his ERA+ of 118 and his FIP- of 91 over his career.

But what should we expect from Cobb in 2015?

He pitched a majority of his 2014 innings during the second half of the season (90.1 vs 76.0), and he put up a wonderful performance after the All-Star break:

2014

ERA

FIP

K/BB

HR/FB

1st Half

4.14

3.86

2.83

13.3%

2nd Half

1.79

2.70

3.52

4.3%

His 1.79 ERA might be a bit lucky, butt his below-3.00 FIP stands as a strong pitching performance, as well as his improved K/BB ratio. What intrigued me the most is his HR/FB drop, even though the size sample is very small. On the 11 homers Cobb allowed in 2014, eight came in the first half of the season. A 4.3% HR/FB is something that we only see in top-level aces like Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright.

Eno Sarris and Jeffrey Long noted that this improvement in Cobb's pitching were mainly due to the increased use of his splitter and fastball. Indeed, both authors recognized that he used his splitter more and more in the second half of the 2014 season, throwing it around 30% of the time. As for his fastball, Long also noted that Cobb decided to throw his four-seam more often, especially after the month of June. Good. In the same article, Long also mentioned Cobb having a FIP- of 61 after the All-Star break. Only Clayton Kershaw (who else?) had a better FIP- in 2014. So what if there was more to Cobb's second half than small-sample-size luck? What if the small changes in approach Cobb made significantly raised his already high level of pitching? Might Cobb could maintain this kind of performance during the 2015 season? Could he be the Cy Young level ace for the Rays that David Price used to be?

A good way of projecting what a pitcher might do in the future is to look at his xFIP as it considers the "number of home runs the pitcher should have allowed," given league average rates.

2013

2014

FIP

3.26

3.23

xFIP

3.02

3.33

xFIP-

76

88

Fangraphs ranks an xFIP between 2.90 and 3.20 as "great," and "above average" when contained between 3.20 and 3.50. So while his FIP was similar, there's an argument that Cobb actually pitched worse in 2014 than he had the year previous.

2013

GB/FB

FB%

HR/FB

Alex Cobb

2.48

22.5

14.8

League Avg

1.30

34.3

10.5

2014

GB/FB

FB%

HR/FB

Alex Cobb

2.05

27.4

8.5

League Avg

1.30

34.3

10.5

So should we expect an above average or a great Alex Cobb for 2015?

What gets me slightly worried about that is that his FB% has increased from 22.5% to 27.4% between 2013 and 2014. Most of the league's pitchers have little control over how many fly-balls turn into dingers, but control over FB% is far more common. Yet, Cobb allowed 11 homers (his personal best) in 2014 whilst pitching more innings than ever. So the important question here is whether or not Cobb has figured out a way to limit his home runs on fly balls.

According to an article by Jonathan Hale published at The Hardball Times in 2009, if a pitcher wants to see his pitches stay in the yard he should not throw them "left and high", and try his best to spot them "on the very corner, be it the very bottom of the zone or right on the outside corner" so that "there is a minuscule chance that's it's going to leave the yard".

Alex Cobb 2013 v 2014 heatmaps

As we can see on the heat maps shown above, Alex Cobb threw more pitches down and left (catcher's POV -- inside to a righty, outside to a lefty) in 2014 than he did in 2013. If we consider the research presented before, this might explain his improvement in the numbers of home runs allowed per fly balls. Now let's take a closer look at the 2014 season, before and after the All-Star break.

Alex Cobb 2014 heatmaps

These clearly show that Cobb was already aiming to the bottom-left in the first half of the season, and with the season continuing, he moved his target there and to the outside even more. Just to remind you, Cobb performed best in the second half of 2014.

Now that we acknowledged the shift in his aiming, let's take a quick look on how hitters did against him in 2014.

Alex Cobb ISO

When Cobb went to the bottom-left corner of the zone (note: Cobb's splitter, is tailing down and left anyway, so that location plays up the movement), hitters both struggled to make contact and hit with nearly no power when they did. Of course, the location of his pitches can not explain all of Cobb' success in 2014, and whether or not he can repeat this pinpoint control is a valid question. But I think that the adjustment toward the natural movement of his pitches is part of the story on Cobb's strong second half.