Let’s Not Forget About Alex Cobb

With just under two weeks to play in the regular season, much of the focus in media has turned to those teams participating in the postseason chase. We speculate on who’s going to get in, who’s best situated to advance in the postseason, etc., etc. By late September, though, the vast majority of actual major-league teams and players are already planning for next season.

And while the Rays have fallen out of the Wild Card picture, Rays pitcher Alex Cobb is positioning himself well for 2018.

After losing most of the previous two campaigns to injury and exhibiting something less than his previous form through the opening months of the current season, Cobb is saving his best for the second half. His surge is quite timely: he’s set to enter free agency this offseason, at a time when even reclamation arms can earn eight figures.

After posting a 15.8% strikeout rate in the first half, that figure has risen to 20.6% in the second, more in line with the best version of Cobb, the one who compelled so many opponents swing over the top of his split-change early in his career.

His xFIP has declined from 4.65 in the first half to 3.44 in the second.

And after recording a 45.4% ground-ball rate in the first half, Cobb has improved by that measure, as well, producing a 52.6% mark in the second — nearer the 54.1% figure hes recorded over his career. That number should have the attention of teams in this home-run and fly-ball era. Nick Cafardo speculated for the Boston Globe that a number of AL East rivals could be a fit for Cobb.

Not that Cobb was a disaster in the first half. He wasn’t. But he’s performing more and more like version of himself who flourished before injury struck. He could fit in the rotation of a team with playoff aspirations.

But Cobb is pitching differently. He’s throwing his signature pitch, his split-change — also known as The Thing — less and less often and utilizing his curveball more and more, at a career-high 33.7% rate.

In 2014, Cobb’s split-changeup ranked third in horizontal movement (-8.1 inches), produced +3.3 inches of vertical movement. He generated a whiff-per-swing rate of 33.2%. It was one of the best pitches in baseball. Then the right-hander was forced to undergo Tommy John and missed all of 2015 and most of 2016.

The pitch is different this year. It features less horizontal movement (-7.8 inches) and drop (+6.6 inches of vertical movement). While batters have still pounded the pitch into the ground, producing 3.1 ground balls to every fly ball according to the Baseball Prospectus leaderboard, the whiff rate against the pitch has fallen to 22%, and opponents have produced their best batting averages against the pitch among Cobb’s offerings. (That said, the line-drive rate of the pitch isn’t much different than his other offerings beyond the outlying month of August.)

As Eno noted back in April, Cobb has been throwing the pitch differently, releasing it differently, after surgery.

He’s releasing the pitch higher, and higher relative to his other pitcher — by about three inches — than he was pre-surgery. Perhaps that has sapped some of its effectiveness and deception.

The 2014 Cobb split-change:

And the 2017 Cobb split-change:

I spoke to Cobb in March, when he was still trying to recapture his pre-surgery form and feel. There was pitch-tracking available on the backfields and in the bullpens of the Rays’ Port Charlotte, Fla., facility, and Cobb would study the movement and velocity of his pitches, along with release-point data, after his bullpen sessions and compare it with his pre-surgery movement.

Cobb has basically stopped throwing the pitch, using it more than 8% of the time in just one of his starts since August 1.

Maybe Cobb has lost some patience with the split-change. What he has done is turn to a modified Rich Hill Plan like a number of other pitchers, relying more and more on the breaking balls. And Cobb has always had a plus curveball in his pitch mix.

The pitch ranks fifth in vertical movement (-8.7 inches) this season, trailing only Mike Fiers, Trevor Bauer, Clayton Kershaw and Drew Pomeranz, owners of some of the biggest-bending and most effective curveballs in the game.

In a year of juiced balls and launch-angle increases, Cobb’s curveball is generating 6.4 ground balls for every fly ball and a 24.3% whiff rate. In 2014, Cobb had the second greatest vertical break on his curveball in the game (-10.0 inches) and the pitch produced five ground balls for every fly ball in addition to earning a 32% whiff rate.

Those ground-ball rates should have the attention of a number of teams, especially those in the AL East which might be at risk of losing significant arms to free agency. (See: Masahiro Tanaka.)

However different Cobb might be, he has become more and more effective as the season has gone and at exactly the right time. Cobb might be different but he also might be back. He will soon be available for hire.

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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5 years ago

It concerns me that he is not regaining the changeup, and that his curveball’s Swstr% hasn’t moved away from it’s usual 10%ish.

His strikeout spike in the second half seems to be driven mostly by an increase in the Swstr% of his sinker, which he has been throwing over 50% of the time in recent months. I don’t know of any reason to suspect this improvement will stick. Cobb seems to be a decent pitcher still without the change, and I’m sure signing teams will hope for a return to form, but I don’t think the 2013-2014 can be relied on for now.