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Alex Cobb is a different pitcher

Breaking down pitch usage from 2016-2017, as compared to pre-Tommy John ace Cobb.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in what was almost another perfect game taken on the chin by the Rays on Monday was another strong performance from Alex Cobb. Cobb went under the knife for Tommy John on May 14, 2015, and he didn’t return to the mound until September 2, 2016. It was a long and harrowing recovery, but Cobb is beginning to look like his old self on the mound.

Well at least in terms of the results. Cobb has made two starts in 2017, and he has a combined 3.46 ERA and 3.51 xFIP. For his career, Cobb has 3.42 ERA and 3.41 xFIP; it doesn’t get more similar in regards to end results than what Cobb has done in 2017 and what he has done throughout his career.

There are, however, some noticeable differences in the process of getting those results.

The Early Years

When Cobb made his big-league debut in 2011, he relied heavily on his four-seam fastball and his split-change, which we will refer to as a splitter in keeping with Brooks Baseball classifications. He threw the two more than 60 percent of the time combined, per Brooks Baseball, and they were his two most effective pitches.

Cobb used the four-seam fastball to get ahead in the count and the splitter to put hitters away. Cobb went to the splitter 56 percent of the time with two strikes in 2011, and he held hitters to a .085 batting average and .220 slugging percentage in those counts. Cobb wasn’t strictly a two-pitch pitcher—he mixed in a sinker 21 percent of the time and a curveball 16 percent of the time—but the four-seamer/splitter combo was his most reliable.

This was Alex Cobb 1.0

Prime Alex Cobb

Fast-forward to 2013 and 2014—Cobb’s two best seasons as a pro—and he looks totally different. Over those two seasons Cobb threw a total of 186 four-seam fastballs over 309.2 innings. The four-seamer was nearly extinct from Cobb’s repertoire. Cobb’s sinker, which had been his tertiary pitch in 2011, was now his go-to pitch, with usage rates of 40% and 38% in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Cobb was a new pitcher. He wasn’t necessarily going to straight heat to start hitters off. In 0-0 counts over those two seasons, he threw 611 sinkers, 491 curveballs, 155 splitters, and just 69 four-seam fastballs. He was keeping hitters off balance right from the get-go. Cobb went 21-12 with a 2.82 ERA, and maybe more importantly posted a 3.29 FIP and was worth 7.9 fWAR, over those two seasons. For Rays’ fans, this was Cobb Shangri-La.

It was also Alex Cobb 2.0.

Modern Cobb

Of course the aforementioned Tommy John surgery disrupted the 2015 and 2016 seasons, as the Rays had to go without Cobb for 16 months. Cobb returned to make five starts in September. He went 1-2 with an 8.59 ERA (5.60 FIP) and was a slight negative to the team (-0.8 WAR).

So far in 2017, the results have been a lot more promising. Cobb has gone 13.0 innings, allowing five earned while sporting an an 11:2 strikeout to walk ratio. As noted above, his ERA/xFIP have been nearly identical to his career-long rates.

Since Cobb has returned from TJ, he has noticeably relied on his split-change less. This makes sense, as the pitch is one that takes a while to regain after Tommy John surgery. As Marc Topkin noted in his Rays Journal from Monday:

Rays RHP Alex Cobb can be a tad stubborn, so it's no surprise that when he was told that the changeup is the last pitch to come back after recovery from Tommy John surgery, he thought it would be different for him.

Just a quick look at his pitch breakdown shows a large increase in reliance on his breaking pitches, while his offspeed (the split-change) usage has dropped off significantly.

That decline has been even sharper in his two 2017 starts, as he has struggled regaining the once-dominant form of his splitter. In two-strike counts, a time when he once went to the splitter reliably, Cobb has thrown the splitter just 22 percent of the time in his two 2017 starts. Instead, it has been the sinker and the curveball each getting over 30 percent usage. It is telling that Cobb doesn’t trust the split to put hitters away right now.

As noted throughout the piece, it is not as though Cobb has been struggling in 2017. His ERA and xFIP are nearly identical to his career rates, and his strikeout to walk ratio has been excellent. However, as Cobb himself noted, if he wants to get back to the truly elite level he was at in 2013-2014, he will probably need to re-harness the splitter. From Topkin’s piece once again,

"Get in those situations where I need that swing and miss, and that's my best offspeed pitch right now," he said. "You kind of learn to go with whatever the hot hand is that day. My whole career I've been changeup dominant and going to that when needing swing and misses and strikeouts.

"So I just have to relearn how to pitch a little bit using the curveball. It's a great pitch. But I can't wait for all three of them to be here."

The emphasis on the last sentence is mine. Cobb wants to get back his full arsenal. He wants to be back to Alex Cobb 2.0. Right now, he’s living in a world where it’s Alex Cobb 2.1 or some strange version of himself he hasn’t fully adjusted to yet. It is telling that Cobb’s changeup use fell off even from his first start of 2017 to his second start.

As Ken Rosenthal noted during spring training:

It stands to reason that Cobb only will improve as he regains his muscle memory. Then again, he had made a combined 18 starts between his 2016 rehabilitation assignment and major-league return and 2017 spring training. Teams are watching him closely; Cobb is a free agent at the end of the season.

That Rosenthal quote came just after he noted that Cobb had used his split-change far less during one spring game than the previous spring start. That’s where we are with Cobb right now. He went from 33 splits in his first start against the Yankees to just 10 on Monday. There will be inconsistencies. That comes with the post-TJ territory.

Cobb is in a strange place right now, but it’s great to see him having success despite still having to feel his way out. When (or if) he is able to regain his full arsenal we may go back to seeing Alex Cobb 2.0, the one who was worth nearly 8.0 WAR over a two-season stretch.

For now, we have Alex Cobb 2.1, and that’s probably not a stable version. If Cobb cannot revert, there will be a series of adjustments, both by the league and by Cobb, that will eventually bring us to version 3.0: life with an ordinary changeup.