Can Alex Cobb Get “The Thing” Back?

When I met Alex Cobb nearly a year ago, he was searching.

He had just missed most of the previous two seasons, first undergoing and then recovering from Tommy John surgery, when I spoke with him at the Rays’ spring-training facility in Port Charlotte, Fla. Cobb knew what he was searching for. He had all the movement, pitch-location, velocity, and release data that the public has at FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, and elsewhere.

A data-savvy player, Cobb noted how he was using the pitch-tracking tools available in the Rays’ bullpen and spring complex to evaluate his pitches’ characteristics last spring compared to the benchmarks he had established before surgery. From 2012 to 2014, he produced a 3.41 FIP and 84 ERA-, numbers which ranked 24th and 22nd, respectively, in the game.

Cobb is of interest because he’s still unemployed. There has been some debate at FanGraphs and elsewhere about which free-agent arm a club might rather have: Lance Lynn or Cobb. Both are still available which probably says something about their initial asks, the market, and the uncertain nature of their skillsets.

It can be argued Cobb has more upside than Lynn. If Cobb had found the answer for which he was searching last season, he would be enjoying a more robust market. But Cobb still hasn’t rediscovered his trademark split-changeup, “The Thing.”

His unique offspeed pitch had been among the best offerings in the game. The pitch had a positive linear-weight mark every year of his career, peaking with a with a 21.2 run value in 2014. Batters hit .191 against the pitch in 2014 and slugged.257. Then the elbow pain came.

The Thing was ineffective last season. Hitters slashed batted .310 against it and slugged .504. Cobb lost trust in it and all but abandoned it by the final months of the season.

That’s a dramatic decrease in usage.

As Eno found back in April, the vertical movement differential between his two-seam and split-change had shrunk dramatically. The offspeed was riding nearly the same plane as his two-seamer, which is not a great recipe for missing barrels. Consider the following chart Eno created — and which I have since updated — documenting the velocity and movement gaps between Cobb’s two-seamer and split-change:

A Look at Alex Cobb’s Split-Change by Year
Season Velo Gap X Move Gap Y Move Gap swsTR%
2013 5.2 -0.3 5.7 18.9%
2014 4.7 0.8 5.2 21.1%
2016 5.2 -1.2 0.3 12.4%
2017 6.3 -0.2 1.8 12.2%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball
Velo and movement all defined off of the sinker.

Moreover, he struggled with his vertical release point. While he was able to keep his two-seamer and curveball coming out of the same basic spot, he was releasing the split-change noticeably higher. He released the pitch 2.52 inches above his two-seamer in 2017, compared to just 1.32 inches in 2014. Not only was the pitch flatter, but he had potentially developed a tell.

What’s troubling is that there was little improvement throughout the season. Cobb created a slight improvement in vertical separation in the season’s middle months, but the same problems that existed in April were also apparent in the fall.

Alex Cobb’s Split-Change Movement by Month
Month Y Move Gap (in.) Y Release Split-Change (ft.) Y Release Two-Seamer (ft)
4/17 0.78 6.27 6.03
5/17 1.25 6.34 6.13
6/17 2.84 6.23 6.05
7/17 2.63 6.26 6.04
8/17 0.93 6.13 5.99
9/17 0.42 6.19 6.02

Here’s the Cobb split-change from 2014:

And from 2017:

Cobb knows all this. He has all the information. He knows what he has to fix. As for actually doing it, though? As for finding that pitch, that release point, that movement? Easier said than done — as he told David Laurila last April.

“If I had that answer, it would be here. But I do have ideas. Going into Tommy John surgery, you hear that the overall feel of pitches comes back slowly, and the changeup is usually the last one to come back.

“It has nothing to do with [flexor-group muscles, as Eno theorized]. I feel completely normal. When people say ‘feel on a pitch’ — especially a changeup — it’s usually a mechanical thing. Feel isn’t what the ball feels like. It’s not a literal term. It’s the way your body feels, in rhythm, over the rubber. We’re talking about inches, even fractions of inches, of changes that impact the flight of the ball.

“Getting your muscle memory right where you want it takes some time. I think that’s why the changeup is usually the last pitch to come. The other pitches aren’t affected as much by the minor movements it takes to make a successful changeup.”

Some changeups, as Cobb notes, do take time to return.

The late great Jose Fernandez didn’t get his changeup back initially after Tommy John surgery. Matt Harvey hasn’t gotten his back, either — or any of his other pitches, for that matter. Stephen Strasburg had fewer bumps in the road in his return. Each pitcher is different, and a study of changeup production from pitchers who have had Tommy John Surgery is perhaps required. Although, Cobb’s pitch really isn’t a changeup or a split. It’s unique.

Still, there was no evidence in the pitch data last season that Cobb was getting the “feel” for pitch back. His words are encouraging, though. The idea that he is inches or fractions of inches away from regaining his signature pitch and returning nearer the form of a top-30 MLB starting pitcher as he once was is intriguing.

So what should a team pay for Cobb? At this point, he seems unlikely to get the four years and $60 million Dave forecast for him or the four years and $56 million the crowd predicted. Can he get his split-change back and once again be a pitcher who misses bats and induces ground balls at greater than a 50% rate? Or does 2017 mark his new normal? Working in his favor — if not the current market — is that he will be a year further removed from surgery, and he knows where he needs to improve. Can he get there? Can he get “The Thing” back? If it is back, perhaps he should hold a showcase. It all makes Cobb something of a wild card.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Mike NMN
Mike NMN

Nice piece. Interesting, good graphics, well presented. Love to see more in this vein–players who have shown material changes (either bad or good) and whether they are either fixable or sustainable.