When he toed the rubber in front of 12,602 Rays fans at the Trop, Alex Cobb had at last made his return to the peak of the baseball diamond: the pitcher’s mound.
For Cobb, who has seen more peaks and valleys throughout his career than most, it was important that he was able to pitch again on a major league mound and rekindle that “competitive nature” within himself.
And pitch he did.
After missing all of 2015 and the majority of last season while recovering from Tommy John Surgery, Cobb threw the ball exceptionally well in his first start back against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 2, 2016. Over five innings work, the righty whiff seven Jays and walked only one while serving up two earned runs on four hits. He may have not earned the victory on the day, but nonetheless Cobb was impressive in his return.
Although he said his mind was free of any thoughts of potential injuries during the start, Cobb did admit after the game his stuff was not up to par.
"But it's to the point where I can at least go out there and compete," Cobb said. "I think it's a case of getting out of your own way. The difficulty of trying to fight yourself and another team is practically impossible out there. Once I started getting out of my own way and focusing on one of the best lineups in baseball, things went a little bit smoother." [mlb.com]
Following his stellar debut, Cobb would pitch well over his next two starts, only giving up two runs, before getting bombarded for 15 runs in his final two. By season’s end, Cobb had pitched 22 innings to the dissonant tunes of a 8.59 ERA (5.60 FIP, 4.39 xFIP), 1.77 WHIP, .355 BABIP and a 21.7% HR/FB.
Returning from Tommy John is no easy task, and the fact that it was such a small sample size should be underscored. Regardless, it appeared that Cobb was still working out the kinks after the TJS. Cobb alluded to the same after his first start that the quality of his pitches was not where he wanted it to be, and that proves out in the numbers as well.
Let’s take a look at a chart comparing the average movement of his repertoire from last season to his career averages (data courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
Alex Cobb 2016 Pitch Movement vs Career Pitch Movement
It should be noted that Cobb only threw two heaters last season and threw his sinker at a greater rate than his career rate, but overall Cobb was not getting the same amount of run and bite on his pitches last season compared to what the amounts he was producing in the past. This was probably the culprit of his 15.4% K% through five starts in 2016, approximately 5% lower than his career strikeout rate of 20.5%.
The most notable is his split-change. Cobb lost almost six and a half inches of drop from the pitch. His splitter was so flat this season that it looked similar to his sinker in terms of movement. The even bigger problem with that is that there is a five-mile per hour separation between his sinker, which also diminished in depth, and his split. So, in essence, his split- last season was just a slower version of his sinker, and missing the -change.
Cobb’s curve lost some glove-side run and depth as well, however it was his command of his pitch that was the bigger issue:
2017 should be a return to form
In terms of preseason projections, Steamer has Cobb churning out a 3.98 ERA over the course of 24 starts, better than his projected FIP and xFIP of 4.07 and 4.11, respectively, and a 1.8 fWAR. Steamer is also projecting a 6.71 K/9, which I think Cobb could certainly top if he harness the movement and command of his pitches. I think somewhere between his Depth Charts and ZiPS K/9 projections of 7.11 and 7.50, respectively, is more accurate. If that is the case, and improved K/9 and HR/FB should lower his expected ERA a tad more.
One factor that needs to be taken into consideration is that Cobb could be traded sometime this upcoming season. He has drawn some clamor this past month, so this could very well be the final season Cobb suits up in a Rays uniform.
In the meantime, Rays fans should look forward to a healthy Cobb to open up the 2017 season who will provide solid value in the third spot of the rotation. He will be watching Brooks carefully to see how well he’s returned to form.