Cobb Ballad: 1,362 Words on the Angels’ Newest Starter

For years, there’s been one refrain in Anaheim: get Mike Trout some pitching help. The last time an Angels pitcher accrued 4 or more WAR was Garrett Richards in 2014, and there’s been a carousel of arms in the half-decade since. Yesterday, the Angels wholly misunderstood that refrain, sending Jahmai Jones to Baltimore in exchange for professionally cromulent starter Alex Cobb.

Cobb, who is in the last year of a four-year, $57 million contract, reached free agency after years of quiet competence. In the three intervening years, he’s alternated between being competent or hurt. He gets to it in a strange way — few strikeouts, fewer walks, and enough grounders to blot out the sun — but it adds up to something a little worse than average but significantly better than replacement level.

For the Angels, that may or may not be a meaningful upgrade to start the season. Shohei Ohtani will return in 2021, but certainly not for the whole season. When he does, he’ll likely be part of a six-man rotation. The top three starters will be Andrew Heaney, Dylan Bundy, and new acquisition José Quintana. That leaves two spots for other pitchers. Before the acquisition of Cobb, that meant Griffin Canning and Patrick Sandoval. Both are interesting, albeit unproven, options.

Cobb clearly slots in after Ohtani and the top trio. How he compares to Canning and Sandoval is up for debate. In 2020, none of them set the world on fire:

Angels Starter Options
Pitcher IP K% BB% ERA xFIP SwStr% GB/FB
Alex Cobb 52.1 16.8% 8.0% 4.30 4.21 9.8% 2.53
Griffin Canning 56.1 23.5% 9.7% 3.99 4.81 11.7% 0.84
Patrick Sandoval 36.2 20.8% 7.5% 5.65 4.00 12.7% 2.03

Despite the fact that Cobb is more of the same, he’ll provide value to the Angels. Assuming perfect injury health is foolish in the best of cases, and this isn’t the best of cases. Bundy, Heaney, and Quintana all have checkered pasts when it comes to health. Neither Canning nor Sandoval has ever thrown more than 125 innings in a year. Cobb himself missed most of 2019. People will miss time, and reinforcements will be needed.

Is there some secret value to Cobb? He throws a sinker, a pitch that has been buzzy of late due to seam-shifted wake. Cobb, as it happens, throws with a decent amount of shift. His splitter, which is his best overall pitch, also benefits from SSW. There’s just one problem — his fastball might break, but that doesn’t make it unhittable. The pitch, wake and all, has been worth 16 runs below average in his career. When opponents make contact, they’ve compiled a .366 wOBA (2015-present), in line with the .365 that sinkers as a whole have allowed. We might have a fancy new way of describing what his pitch does, but its results are wholly ordinary.

If you’re willing to squint, you can find upside here. Cobb’s velocity has never been higher than it was in 2020. He’s throwing his splitter more than a third of the time, which limits the number of weak breaking balls and subpar fastballs he needs to throw to get by. Perhaps most importantly, he’s leaving Camden Yards, where he’d allowed a brutal 23.8% of opponents’ fly balls to leave the park over the last three years. Over the same time period, Angels pitchers checked in at a 16.1% rate at home.

Put Cobb in an average park, and his homer troubles could subside overnight. We’re projecting him to be worse than Sandoval and Canning, but if some of his recent form has been park-related, maybe there’s some homer-based improvement coming. Even if there isn’t, though, Cobb can still fill a valuable role.

Every year since 2016, the Angels have given a pile of starts to sub-replacement-level pitchers:

Sub-Replacement Starts, 2016-2020
Year Starts WAR
2016 18 -1.3
2017 9 -1
2018 14 -1.7
2019 68 -2.5
2020 20 -1.4

Signing Cobb attacks this part of the distribution. They aren’t signing Cobb and expecting a new ace; if that were the case, the return would be significantly different. With the Orioles contributing more than half of Cobb’s salary, he’ll cost the Angels a similar amount to Martín Pérez or Jon Lester, both of whom took $5 million deals and project for similarly pedestrian numbers. If you want to paper over the weak part of your rotation with below-average but above-replacement bulk, Cobb will get the job done, with a slight chance for more.

To get Cobb rather than a free agent, the Angels sent Jahmai Jones to the Orioles. Jones, who we pegged as the Angels’ No. 11 prospect last year, is a speedy second baseman whose prodigious athletic talents have landed him on several Top 100 lists. Jones came up purely as a second baseman, but the Angels experimented with using him as an outfielder in spring training, which he took poorly to. When he returned to the minors, his bat fell off a bit as well; after scorching Low- and Hi-A in 2017, he’s been an average or worse hitter in two years of action at Hi-A and Double-A.

Why is Eric still optimistic on Jones? His natural bat-to-ball skills remain excellent. Even in a down 2019, he made solid contact and frequently hit the ball with authority. He’s also a plus athlete with frequently-praised on-field makeup, two traits that help offset the disappointing hitting numbers of late. One thing that doesn’t bode well: Jones has become a chronic swing tinkerer. He’s altered pretty much everything at this point: hand position, initial load, leg kick, and stride. In his most recent game action, a cup of coffee in 2020, he showed his most conservative swing yet. Eric projects him as a bat-first infielder, one whose offensive contributions offset his middling defense, with the total package looking like a role player or utility infielder.

Did the Angels give up too much in exchange for the bulk innings they can expect from Cobb? In this analyst’s opinion, they did. Opine all you want on how each pitcher is a unique puzzle a few adjustments away from greatness; at some point, all these pitchers of similar skill and durability start to blend together.

It’s not as though someone of Cobb’s caliber can’t be found on the free agent market, even with Pérez and Lester taken. Want a lefty? Tyler Anderson beckons. Right-handers more your speed? Maybe I can interest you in a Jake Arrieta. Want a little more youth with your purchase? Check out Taijuan Walker. Thinking boom-bust? Rich Hill says hi.

It’s not so much that Jahmai Jones is a can’t-miss prospect. He’s very much the opposite of that — though he keeps changing his swing in an attempt to unlock an extra level of production, two straight seasons of average production at Double-A tells me that he hasn’t worked anything out just yet.

Assemble enough prospects, though, and one of them will figure it out. They don’t call them lottery tickets for nothing; for every 10 players that never make it work, one unlocks the right swing change, or finds the right workout routine, or simply starts to click in a way they didn’t before. The Angels aren’t giving up a sure thing, but they’re giving up some probabilistic chance at a solid major leaguer, and some smaller probabilistic chance at a star.

Maybe it won’t hurt them. Probably, in fact, it won’t hurt them. There’s a chance that Jones works out, though, and I simply don’t understand why they decided to sacrifice that chance for whatever the marginal upgrade is from a freely available player to Cobb. Maybe I’m too low on him. Maybe the team’s front office or their pitching brain trust see an easy switch that can lop half a run off of his ERA. Color me skeptical.

To me, this is an issue of mis-valuing replacement level. If the only option instead of Cobb were an actual replacement-level pitcher, the numbers would add up. 1.5 WAR this year is worth more than the average of Jones’s outcomes. But that’s not the trade the Angels are making. For the money they’ll pay Cobb, they could simply go out and sign a roughly equivalent starter. Maybe the guy they signed would be worse. Probably, in fact, he’d be a little worse. Unless they’ve unlocked the secret splitter code, though, that gap simply isn’t that wide, which means that Cobb’s value over his potential replacement is muted. I wouldn’t give up a Jahmai Jones to pay for that. The Angels clearly disagree.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Jose Quintana had posted 7 seasons of 32 starts or more before 2020 where he was hurt by washing dishes… I don’t know if I’d call that a checkered past in terms of injuries.