Q&A: Neal Cotts, Evolution of a Comeback

In 29 games out of the Texas Rangers bullpen, Neal Cotts is 4-1 with a 0.85 ERA. The 33-year-old left-hander is having a very good season. Not long ago, it looked like his career might be over.

When he took the mound in late May, it was his first big-league appearance since May 2009. When he logged a win on June 5, it was his first since 2006. During the past four years, Cotts has undergone multiple surgeries and been released by multiple teams.

Cotts, who appeared in 284 games with the Cubs and White Sox from 2003 to 2009, was signed by the Rangers in February. He talked about the evolution of his career — including the speed bumps — when Texas visited Fenway Park earlier this summer.


Cotts on his career, his repertoire and his comeback: “When I came out of college, I threw a four-seam fastball, a curveball and a changeup. My repertoire was pretty basic and I got all the way to the big-leagues with those three pitches. Up to that point, I was a starter. The following year [2004] I went into the bullpen and started working on a cutter. A big reason was that Mark Buehrle was with the White Sox and had been having a lot of success with his cutter.

“A cutter gave me something a little harder that breaks, which helped me compete against lefties coming out of the bullpen. The two weren’t related. I learned the cutter in the spring and didn’t know I’d be moving into the bullpen at the time.

“It took a little while to master. I ended up making the team, and threw it that year, but there were some lapses where they went a really long way. I didn’t have total confidence in where it was going to end up all the time. I could get it to move, but not always in the right location.

“I haven’t thrown a curveball in awhile. I throw a slider — kind of a slider-slurve. I still throw the cutter, and every once in awhile I’ll throw a changeup. I haven’t used the changeup nearly as much since moving into the bullpen. Since moving into the pen, I’ve primarily gone with harder breaking stuff and my fastball.

“When I was with the Cubs, it was mainly slider. Then I got hurt, and last year I went back to throwing more of a cutter. It’s kind of varied here and there, but in terms of the break, I don’t know if there’s always much of a difference outside of the velocity. Sometimes my cutter and slider get the same depth. I don’t intend the cutter to go down a lot, but at times it does. Last night it did.

“I don’t feel I’ve had to change anything because of the injuries. I don’t feel there’s a lack of mobility, or ability. Getting older, I think my mechanics have actually improved a little bit. Before the injury… they weren’t very good, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not sure what led to the hip stuff. I had Tommy John surgery, but that was before my hip got fixed.

“I kind of threw across my body, and still do a little bit. Getting older, you kind of have to get used to doing things a little differently, because you’re not quite as flexible as you were when you were 22, 23. My mechanics were brought up a few times when I was younger, but that was mostly when there was inconsistency getting the ball over the plate.

“I moved from side to side on the mound. I moved all the way over to the third base side, because of throwing across my body. That was when I was with Oakland [in 2002]; they had me do that. I was always on the first base side, and they moved me to the other side. The main reason was to help me keep my changeup on the plate more effectively.

“When I went to the Cubs [in 2007], I went back to the first base side. That was to try to make me more deceptive to lefties, because that was the role I was going to have to take to stick with the club.

“I was mostly a fastball-cutter guy, and when I got to the Cubs I tried to develop a slider; I wanted something with a bigger break to work against lefties. At least I consider it a slider. Maybe it breaks more like a slurve. I don’t know. Everybody is different, so maybe some would even call it a curveball.

“I had Tommy John in 2009 and my hip surgery was 2010. I was rehabbing my Tommy John, with Pittsburgh, when… I’ve had hip troubles, even when I was with the Cubs, before I hurt my elbow. They wanted me to go see a specialist and decided I should get surgery. They thought maybe it even caused some of the elbow trouble. If I got back healthy and my hip was still a problem, maybe I’d injure my elbow again.

“They did a labrum surgery, which is pretty simple. A-Rod and a bunch of other guys have had it. But about a month afterward, it got infected. I was in the hospital for awhile and ended up having three more surgeries on it. That was the big setback. There’s a reason I didn’t have a win — like you mentioned — for a long time; I haven’t been around. I couldn’t find a job for awhile. There was a point where my agent thought we were maybe out of options. Both last year and this year, I was a [non-roster] invite.

“I actually didn’t make the team out of spring training. I didn’t throw well in the spring. I had 20-something innings in Triple-A, did all right and got called up.

“The game of baseball is interesting. When I got my first win since coming back, I threw the worst out of all of our pitchers. And the night before, our left fielder threw up a zero. That’s the way this game works sometimes. I didn’t really deserve the win, but it definitely felt good to be out there with a chance to get it. It’s been a long couple of years.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Brett W
9 years ago

He’s had a nice career. How many guys can say they played for both the White Sox and Cubs when each was good?