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Rays vs. Rangers, game one recap: In which Alex Cobb figures a thing out

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(But the Rays lose eventually.)

Texas Rangers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Okay look.

I know that I have to tell you that the Rays lost. I know I have to tell you that Kevin Cash gave his starter the opportunity to complete the game, that maybe he shouldn’t have but that hindsight is 20/20, that Alex Cobb gave up the lead, and that the Rays folded in extra innings. I have to say that there was a chance to beat Yu Darvish, and that the Rays let it slip away.

But so much more happened in this game, and so much of it was good. The last two innings will still be there when we want to think about them. Let’s wait.

Alex Cobb used to be an ace. Back then he threw a great split-changeup, a good curve, and an average fastball. Everything played up because he could command it all, and he knew what to do with those tools. Oodles of moxie.

Then Tommy John took the splitter away from him. It no longer fell off the table, his command of it was iffy, and he had to learn to pitch without. I’m sure it’s been a frustrating season for Cobb and the Rays. For pitching nerds everywhere, though, it’s been a fascinating experiment, outlining the effects of pure stuff and the limits of “pitchability.”

I don’t think anyone reads a batter better than Alex Cobb does, so let’s follow along, and try to read the batters with him.

Top 1

Cobb started the game with two high fastballs to Texas lefty Shin-Soo Choo before dropping in a backdoor curve. Choo hit the curve hard, but straight at a shifted infielder.

Cobb’s next pitch was a high fastball to Elvis Andrus. It was over the middle of the plate, not quite high enough, and Andrus hit it out to straight center field. Maybe it wasn’t a good enough pitch, but not all mistakes get punished. Andrus was on top of that high fastball like he was looking for it.

Alex Cobb notices things like that.

His first pitch to Nomar Mazara was a high curve dropped into the zone. The next was a low fastball. The next was a split-changeup in the same spot as the fastball, striking Mazara out swinging.

Alex Cobb threw three curve balls to Adrian Beltre, and Beltre hit one of them hard, but Tim Beckham made a great diving stop. Cobb got out of the inning, and he noticed things.

Here’s what I noticed: Choo had no problem adjusting to a curve, despite the change in speed from the pitches earlier; Andrus was clearly looking for a high fastball; and Beltre seemed ready for his diet of curves. Only one pitch produced a whiff—the sole splitter Cobb threw.

Top 2

The first four pitches to Mike Napoli were three fastballs and a curve. The next pitch was a splitter, at the bottom of the zone, to strike Napoli out swinging. As Brian Anderson pointed out, the split-change that Cobb got Napoli on had very little motion, and although Cobb still drew the whiff because of the change in speed, he was visibly frustrated with himself.

That’s been a big part of the story with Alex Cobb this year. He’s gone away from his splitter in part because he just hasn’t been able to throw it consistently.

But he tried again, in a 1-0 count to Rougned Odor, and was rewarded with a swing and miss. He came back on the next pitch with a fastball, and Odor hit that one hard, on a line, but right at a Rays outfielder.

“Interesting,” thought Alex Cobb. Yes, the changeup drew the miss, but it didn’t pull Odor’s timing away from the fastball in the slightest.

Cobb threw Jonathan Lucroy two splitters in the next at bat. One was a ball, low. The other was a strike, pulled foul down the line, before Cobb jammed Lucroy with a fastball on his hands to get out of the inning.

Cobb walked off the field, shaking his head, his eyes focusing on nothing. It was the look of a man with a problem to solve.

Top 3

The third inning was different.

The first three pitches to Carlos Gomez were all splitters. The first missed low. The second was thrown badly, high in the zone, but produced a called strike. The third was thrown well, at the bottom, and was pulled for a foul. Next, Cobb went away from the splitter with a low curve, that Gomez reached for and touched foul, but then came back to the splitter—it was hit hard, but once more pulled foul. So he went away. Gomez was behind on a fastball, fouling it the other way. The final pitch of the at bat was another mediocre splitter, too high in the zone, with no movement, pulled hard and over third base. It hit the umpire and stayed on the infield for a single.

One might at this point have wondered why Cobb kept throwing his splitter so much. Much like earlier in the season, when he nearly abandoned it, he was clearly struggling to throw a good one. But I think the decision to persist had something to do with Cobb’s reading of the Texas batters. They were seeing his fastball and his curve well, differentiating between the two easily. And the fact that they kept hammering his fastball while missing or pulling poorly-thrown split-changeups suggests that they were looking fastball aggressively. They didn’t believe they had to respect his offspeed, so they tilted their approach as if it didn’t exist.

Alex Cobb understands game theory, and I don’t imagine he likes it when an opponent bets on him not being able to execute the pitch that was once his bread and butter. I think it makes him mad.

He started off the next at bat by throwing a fastball by Joey Gallo on the outside, and then followed that up with a good splitter, down and in, swung at and missed. The next splitter had good movement, but missed down and away. Next came another splitter, on the outside, fouled with a defensive swing. After that came a very good splitter just off the bottom outside corner, taken and called a ball to even the count. The last pitch of the at bat was another splitter—not a great one, without a ton of movement and on the inside—taken for called strike three.

That was five splitters in a row. It was only the third time this season Cobb has done that (the others being April 5 to Greg Bird, and June 3 to Kyle Seager).

Cobb opened his second at bat against leadoff hitter Choo with a bad splitter, missing up and away, but he stayed undeterred, and followed it up with a great splitter, right on the outside corner, called a strike. Another very good splitter in the exact same spot produced ground ball double play. Eight in a row.

Top 4

Facing Andrus, the man who ambushed his fastball the first time through the order, Cobb slowed down, starting with a curve. Then he placed a fastball up and in to brush Andrus back, and followed it up with a beautiful splitter at the bottom of the zone, taken for strike two. He continued to change eye level and speeds, but Andrus jumped on another high fastball, just like he had before, lining it (luckily for the Rays) into Cobb’s glove.

Now think for a second. Cobb made an effort to work his offspeed back into his repertoire, and he put pitches all over the zone that at bat. And still, the only one Andrus hit hard was the high fastball, which is the same pitch that Andrus had hammered the first time up. What does that say about Andrus’s and the Rangers’ approach?

I’m pretty sure I know what it said to Alex Cobb. It said that the Rangers were prepped to hunt for his fastball, that they had not yet noticed Cobb’s insistence on throwing the split, and that if he could execute, he could take advantage of them.

The pitch to start Mazara was a beautiful changeup on the lower outside corner, and he followed it up with a low curve, tapped for a grounder.

Top 5

The first pitch to Mike Napoli was a fastball up and in that sent him diving to the ground. The next pitch was a perfect splitter at the bottom of the zone. After a fouled fastball, Cobb came back to another splitter, with good finish in the dirt, to strike Napoli out swinging.

This sequence almost looked routine. It looked like the old Alex Cobb. Like a pitcher who could put his plus split-changeup exactly where he wanted it, whenever he wanted to, and who has the brains to mix his pitches. It did not look like 2017.

In order to belabor the point, I will continue.

A curve followed by four straight splitters got Odor to ground out softly. A curve followed by a splitter got Lucroy to ground out.

The point is now belabored. Here’s the point, from Brooks Baseball. Of the 99 pitches Alex Cobb threw, 46 were splitters, 33 were fastballs, and only 24 were curves. Those splitters produced 34 strikes (74%), 26 swings (57%), and 9 whiffs (20%).

No, the pitch did not have the great movement of years past, but sometimes it had good movement, and with what the Rangers were looking for, it was as effective as you can ask a pitch to be.

From the third inning through the eighth inning, the Rangers had only two hits, both singles.

Rays Offense

While we celebrate Alex Cobb the hobbled ace, let’s remember that aces with all the tools are good too. Yu Darvish challenged the Rays within the zone, and he mostly dominated them, with 12 strikeouts over eight innings. Except of course when he didn’t.

In the bottom of the fourth inning Brad Miller connected with a fastball low in the zone, and tied the game with a scorched fly ball just to the left of the Rays tank.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Corey Dickerson connected with a fastball, also low but in the zone, and hit it out to straight center field.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, something unexpected happened. Mallex Smith got into a Darvish fastball on the outer third and hit it for an opposite field home run. Huh.

Back To Reality: The Ill-Fated Ninth and Tenth

I do have to talk about the ninth inning eventually.

Despite Alex Colome being ready in the bullpen, Cobb came back out to pitch. Joey Gallo lifted a curve off the outer edge of the plate for a leadoff double into the alley.

And the first pitch to Shin-Soo Choo was a splitter that hung on the outer edge, up at waste level. If Mallex Smith can do it, Choo can too. He hit it for an opposite field home run to tie the game.

After finding his good splitter tonight, Cobb got caught throwing a bad one. Is that irony?

Colome escaped the inning unscathed, but Brad Boxberger could not do the same in the tenth. He walked the leadoff man, Lucroy, and that runner came around to score the winning run several batters later.

Steven Souza Jr. pinch hit for Shane Peterson to lead off the Rays’ half of the tenth, and worked a good at bat before sqeezing a seeing-eye single through the left. Adeiny Hechavarria tried to sacrifice bunt, but didn’t get it far enough in front of the plate, and Robinson Chirinos threw to second to start a double play. Souza stuck his leg wide of the bag, trying to take Andrus out. It would have triggered the slide rule if Hech had managed to beat the throw, but no special attention was needed. The Rangers completed their double play despite the interference, made one more out, and won the game.

Some other links:

  • On the Andrus home run—Mallex Smith wasn’t close to making the catch, but he did show an impressive ability to run straight up the outfield wall.
  • In the top of the third inning, while really interesting things were going on for Cobb on the pitching mound, Ken Rosenthal was in the booth with the broadcast team to talk about the trading deadline. That meant they weren’t paying close attention to Alex Cobb, but the interview was good. Rosenthal is great at his job, and Dewayne and BA made it an entertaining, thoughtful conversation. Good job all around.
  • To be clear, I’m not saying that Alex Cobb is about to become his old self starting now. His splitter doesn’t yet have the same action, and I have no idea if he’ll be able to carry the feel for it, that he worked out tonight, forward into other games. Also, other teams will see what he did and be better prepared than the Rangers were. Everyone is smart, and they all have advance scouts. Pitching is hard. But something new (or was it something old?) happened in this game. Note it.