Tampa Bay’s True Staff Ace

You know all about xFIP, because you read FanGraphs, and it’s a distinctly FanGraphs-y statistic. You don’t quite know how you feel about it. Some pitchers demonstrate an ability to suppress runs more than one would expect. Some pitchers appear to be unusually homer-prone. Lots has been written about the handful of apparent exceptions, but xFIP isn’t trash, as some might suggest. Most generally, it does a good job of separating the good pitchers from the bad ones. Good pitchers get strikeouts, limit walks, and don’t allow homers. Most pitchers with weird-looking home-run rates will regress. One wants to argue with xFIP, but it isn’t easy, except on the margins. It contains a lot of truth.

This year, 56 American League starters have thrown at least 50 innings. Felix Hernandez leads with 90.2; we find Felix Doubront at 50, exactly. Here are the top four, by xFIP:

  1. Anibal Sanchez
  2. Felix Hernandez
  3. Yu Darvish
  4. Max Scherzer

There’s nothing too entirely shocking, although Sanchez has been a bit of a surprise. Everyone knew he was good; few expected him to be great. But the talent was always obvious. Now, nobody ever presents a top-four list. Typically, you’ll see top-five lists, and who do you suspect would be fifth on this list? Who’s the guy right behind Scherzer? Hint: it isn’t teammate Justin Verlander. It isn’t Hisashi Iwakuma, or Chris Sale, or breakthrough starter Rick Porcello. It’s a guy named Alex Cobb, and he pitches for the Rays, and he’s amazing, and you hardly know anything about him.

Probably. Rays fans know everything about him. Rays fans are rabid, at least on the Internet, and they’re particularly knowledgeable, at least on the Internet. But not all baseball fans are Rays fans — the overwhelming majority are not! — and Cobb has been flying way under the radar. When people think of Rays starters, they think first of David Price. Then it’s Matt Moore, then it’s probably Jeremy Hellickson. Cobb is one of those guys who wasn’t supposed to be good enough to replace James Shields. So far, he’s been just as effective.

If you go back to the winter, the Royals acquired Shields because they thought he could turn them into a contender. Shields was perceived to be a major piece. The Rays, in return, were given no one on the major-league roster, so you’d think the Rays would’ve suffered. They’re presently in the thick of the race, again, and Cobb is a big reason why. Price is hurt, Hellickson has been particularly ineffective, and Cobb has been one of the best starters in baseball.

Dave just wrote about Matt Carpenter, and how he’s turning into a star out of nowhere. This, in a way, is a coincidental companion piece, because Cobb was drafted in 2006, and he never cracked the Baseball America Rays top-10 prospect lists. Cobb, if he made it, was going to be someone you put at the back of the rotation, the kind of guy who’d bounce around a lot between Triple-A and the majors, but today he’s the best starting pitcher on his team, and his team has last year’s Cy Young winner on it.

What do the best starting pitchers do? This is the xFIP argument again. And we’ve already covered that, but Cobb has 69 strikeouts and 17 walks in 75 innings. More, nearly three-fifths of balls in play are grounders, and Cobb’s able to pitch well against both lefties and righties alike. We could talk about the fact that he’s allowed nine dingers, and we could try to make a whole bunch out of that, but, probably, it’s a blip. And there are indications that we should’ve seen Cobb coming, to some extent. Over last year’s final two months, he had 57 strikeouts and 17 walks in 67 innings. Cobb hasn’t stopped growing, following a path somewhat similar to that of Doug Fister.

What might’ve clicked for Cobb down the stretch a season ago? He changed his curveball, on advice from Shields and Wade Davis, and over the year he grew more comfortable with it. He started throwing it more often, and he started throwing it harder, and if we want to believe in that narrative then things came together over the last several weeks. That’s carried over into 2013, as Cobb is throwing his offspeed stuff a lot, and as he’s gained about a tick or two across the board.

Cobb’s velocity is up, and while he throws a fastball, he doesn’t throw it that much. This year, just under 47% of his pitches have been fastballs, against a starter average of about 62%. Cobb loves his curve, and he loves his splitter, so much that he throws it more than anyone else. He also throws his split more than anyone else throws his changeup. They’re similar pitches in flight, if less so in grip, and Cobb’s split is spectacular and the whole key to his success.

For an idea of what Cobb’s able to do with his split, consider: this year, 38% of his splitters have wound up in the strike zone. Batters have swung at 70% of his splitters overall. By developing a better curve, Cobb takes some of the focus away from his split, which allows his split to be all the more successful. This is what that thing looks like against perhaps the greatest hitter in the world:

CobbSplit.gif.opt

That’s from Wednesday, when Cobb faced the Tigers and controlled them, despite the Tigers having arguably baseball’s best offense. Said Torii Hunter:

Hunter said he had plenty of problems trying to get his bat on Cobb’s changeup.

“My at-bats, he threw at least four or five of them,” he said. “You see it up and then when you swing, it drops down. You’re like, ‘What is this, Bugs Bunny pitching?’ He had good stuff. I hate tipping my cap, but you have to.”

Said Torii Hunter in a similar quote?

“It felt like Bugs Bunny was pitching,” Tigers rightfielder Torii Hunter said. “When you swing, the ball just drops out of the zone. It’s like it didn’t want to get hit.”

There’s a .gif that went kind of viral after the game. It’s another of Cobb vs. Miguel Cabrera, and I’ll just put it below:

CobbCabreraCurve.gif.opt

That’s Cabrera fouling off a two-strike curve, and then mouthing “wow,” or something. The fun interpretation is that Cabrera was impressed. The less-fun interpretation is that Cabrera thought he should have killed that pitch. But let’s go with the former, because we’re building us a Cobb-friendly narrative. Miguel Cabrera just won the MVP and the Triple Crown and he’s hitting the crap out of the ball. Every ball. Here, Cabrera wasn’t just impressed by a Cobb pitch; he made sure that Cobb knew it. He made damn sure.

cabreracobb

Cabrera ultimately lined out, because he’s Miguel Cabrera and he can more or less do what he wants. But that might be the .gif that gets Alex Cobb more broad recognition. If all eyes are on Cabrera, and if Cabrera gives Cobb his seal of approval, then it follows that Cobb should be more appreciated. It follows that Cobb should at least be more known. He’s an unknown starter pitching like the best in what seems to be a sustainable way.

Cobb does everything you want a starting pitcher to do, and while his contact rate isn’t particularly outstanding, the same could be said of Cliff Lee. Cobb still gets his strikeouts because he stays in and around the zone and seldom falls behind. Remember that this is the guy who, a few weeks ago, struck out 13 of 23 Padres batters, which isn’t something a guy can pull off if he doesn’t have sometimes unhittable stuff. It’s Price who has the hardware, and the name value, and the trade rumors. It’s Moore who’s thought to be the staff phenom. It’s Hellickson who’s been written about for his ability to suppress hits and runs. But it’s Cobb who’s pitching the best. Maybe the lesson is that we don’t sufficiently appreciate pitchers with dynamite changeups or splitters. Maybe the lesson is that pitchers are just hard to predict. Here’s a simpler, more specific lesson: Alex Cobb is really good. You should know about him.



Print This Post



Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Steve
Member
Steve
3 years 3 months ago

I don’t understand. Miggy Ks twice, makes a surprised face, and suddenly Cobb is a superstar?

Shlum
Guest
Shlum
3 years 3 months ago

Yeah, you might never have experienced this before, but respect between professionals can actually mean something in performance evaluation.

SteveGoldman_SBN
Guest
3 years 3 months ago

GFY Steve

Steve
Member
Steve
3 years 3 months ago

Classy. Did you pay some +30 year old 15 mil per to come up with that one?

David
Guest
David
3 years 3 months ago

huh?

scraps
Guest
scraps
3 years 3 months ago

Even though Steve was a twit leading off the subthread — sorry, Steve — he doesn’t deserve to be told “go fuck yourself.” He was defending himself from Goldman’s subliterate comment –pretty mildly, in my opinion — and doesn’t deserve now to have his comment minused.

kevinthecomic
Guest
kevinthecomic
3 years 3 months ago

I thought gfy meant “good for you” — I’m feeling awfully naive right now.

a
Guest
a
3 years 3 months ago

Dave just wrote about Matt Carpenter, and how he’s turning into a star out of nowhere.

^ really????? no where???? u even watch baseball?

DONNIE
Guest
DONNIE
3 years 3 months ago

matt carpenter owned in 75% of all leagues on opening day in fantasy, im sure 30-50% knew the guy would be big time.

hk
Guest
hk
3 years 3 months ago

You could have stopped at, “I don’t understand.”

Bill
Guest
Bill
3 years 3 months ago

My favorite part is the 1st GIF where Cabrera gives him a nod like “yup, that was good.”

Shlum
Guest
Shlum
3 years 3 months ago

Ya I liked it too but I thought the acting could be a little better.

RMD
Guest
RMD
3 years 3 months ago

So, Moore is a ticking clock for regression but Cobb’s not? Please.

xFIP is a tool. It’s not gospel.

Eminor3rd
Member
Eminor3rd
3 years 3 months ago

I love how any time any “saber” guy refers to a statistic, it means he’s calling is GOSPEL

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
3 years 3 months ago

BA, HR’s, and RBI’s are the Holy Trinity. The Bible tells me so.

Turbo Sloth
Guest
Turbo Sloth
3 years 3 months ago

Moore is less,
Cobb is God,
All hail xFIP,
Hallelujah

Sing it, sista!

Shlum
Guest
Shlum
3 years 3 months ago

So, RMD is a ticking clock for stupid comments? Please.

RMD is a tool. That’s gospel.

JonathanPapelbon
Guest
JonathanPapelbon
3 years 3 months ago

The better Cabrera reaction might be in the first .gif. To me at least, he appears to nod approvingly during his follow-through after whiffing on the split. If nothing else, it seems to validate the reaction in the second .gif – clearly Cabrera was animated, perhaps impressed, in his ABs against this guy.

Andrew
Guest
Andrew
3 years 3 months ago

The second gif is longer, where he does the stare and the look of “wtf?”. http://www.blessyouboys.com/2013/6/6/4401288/gif-of-the-day-miguel-cabrera-was-impressed-with-alex-cobb

Northsider
Guest
Northsider
3 years 3 months ago

“Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that.” – Homer

Izzy
Guest
Izzy
3 years 3 months ago

*Fourfteen

B-Smack
Member
B-Smack
3 years 3 months ago

When watching the progression of the Rays staff, it comes as no surprise Cobb is rising to top. He’s the best pure “pitcher” on the staff. Cobb doesn’t have the fastball of Price or Moore, but his ability to locate (all pitches) and change speeds is miles ahead of the 1 and 2 starters getting all the pub. Though it’s stretch, he’s a poor man’s Greg Maddux in his approach. He has to be watched over multiple starts to be appreciated.

JamesDaBear
Guest
3 years 3 months ago

Rays fans are rabid on the internet because none of them actually go to games, even though their teams regularly win 90 games.

scraps
Guest
scraps
3 years 3 months ago

Ooooh, you got it! The fans on the net don’t go to games! The Rays fans here hang their heads, and slink away.

Mike
Guest
Mike
3 years 3 months ago

No need to be a di*k

Neil Weinberg
Editor
3 years 3 months ago

Excellent. I’ve been following Cobb’s box scores, but I hadn’t watched a full start until he played my Tigers yesterday. I was impressed.

McKayla Maroney
Guest
McKayla Maroney
3 years 3 months ago

Well, I’M not impressed!

Shlum
Guest
Shlum
3 years 3 months ago

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Charlie
Member
Charlie
3 years 3 months ago

Lolololololol at using one AB by Miguel Cabrera as a foundation of this, supposedly, persuasive piece of writing. Although I agree with many of the points you make, cmon…

I’m with Steve. Also, Mr. “Expert” Goldman – you may need to change your bib. Extremely childish. Somewhat surprised. Actually, not surprised.

Metsox
Guest
Metsox
3 years 3 months ago

Damn. I thought this was going to be about Alex Torres and his 10 innings of 1.68 FIP work.

Brazen Reader
Guest
3 years 3 months ago

And there are indications that we should’ve seen Cobb coming, to some extent. Over last year’s final two months, he had 57 strikeouts and 17 walks in 67 innings.

It sucks that the useful indicators of improvement contained in small sample sizes can only be recognized in hindsight.

Oscar
Guest
Oscar
3 years 3 months ago

Had David Price in an ESPN league that I’m in with some co-workers. Picked up Cobb after he got injured and jokingly told them he’s the new David Price. Guess I was right to a certain extent.

Juan
Guest
Juan
3 years 3 months ago

Many people miss the point. Price and Moore have the flashy
flame thrower quality talent; and so, were EXPECTED to be
star quality pitchers. Cobb was not held to be in the same
class, but is now performing better than both, Price and
Moore, and now Cobb may be the Rays’ stopper. Some teams
may have the talent to, at times, stop Price or Moore
(or both). But, MOST teams definitely do not have the talent
to stop the entire Rays rotation. It’s just a matter of which
poison do you want to take. The Rays know it, and concetrate on
pitching, defense, and timely hitting (to score the few runs
needed to win). That is the best formula for a small market
team. And, when they get help for Longoria in the lineup,
they’ll probably win a World’s Champiomship. But, Price and
Moore will be back. They’re very competitive, and cannot be
kept down very long. Go Rays!

Mike
Guest
Mike
3 years 3 months ago

He is having a nice year but he isn’t David Price that is a bit soon for me. I am a Rays fan and let’s just quiet the expectations a little bit. Go Rays!

jim
Guest
jim
3 years 3 months ago

I did a couple of studies on changes in peripherals first half-second half of last year.

http://joetorresucks.blogspot.com/2013/01/gains-and-losses-in-fs-zone-and.html

Cobb showed a nice boost in zone % to 46% in the second half.

He also had a good GB % at nearly 59%.

http://joetorresucks.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-look-at-gains-and-losses-in-gb-fb-and.html

Those gains have nearly been exactly replicated so far this year, possibly explaining why he has been so successful.

Matty Brown
Member
Member
Matty Brown
3 years 3 months ago

I really liked the face Miguel made after that filthy splitter, he liked tip his cap to him.

PackBob
Guest
PackBob
3 years 3 months ago

Well, I know something about Cobb now where I had forgotten what little I did know. I know how he pitches and that he pitches very well how he pitches. I like writing that informs me.

I could nitpick that there is no reference to volcanoes, which I like even more than baseball, being surrounded by three of them, with one exploding a week after I was next to it taking photos, but I won’t.

taprat
Guest
taprat
3 years 3 months ago

Some guy up above referred to Cobb in the same sentence with Greg Maddux. Another guy who’s been compared to Maddux lately, and who also features a killer split finger [change?] is Iwakuma. Jeff, I know that people fuss about you writing about the M’s, but I’d love to see Iwakuma get the treatment you just gave Cobb. These guys who are doing with their splitters what past great pitchers have done with their changeups are a pretty interesting, and I think new, breed, that deserve some attention.

Ashman
Guest
Ashman
3 years 3 months ago

A couple gifs and a jpg and I’m supposed to take your word for it that bugs bunny is Tampas staff ace? What a waste

Scraps
Guest
Scraps
3 years 3 months ago

Minus again? That’s a joke, people!

Although, maybe people are minusing it because it’s a bad joke. I thought it was mildly funny.

bmarkham
Member
bmarkham
3 years 3 months ago

He has a slightly better K/9 rate than Price and Moore, slightly better BB/9 than Price that is half the rate of Moore, a better HR/9 than Price and slightly worse HR/9 than Moore, A way better GB% than Moore that is decently ahead of Price, and a higher BABIP than Moore though not as high as Price.

The writer didn’t really talk about all that but if he did maybe all these negative comments would have been avoided. Cobb is clearly performing better AND should expect less negative regression than Moore, who has gotten way more attention because of his win-loss record. Moore’s .228 BABIP just screams regression. Cobb’s .263 will see some regression of course too.

If Price returns to last year’s form when he comes back the Rays are definitely a playoff contender. Although they’re fourth in the AL East they are second in first order, second order, and third order wins, the Sox being first in all of them. The only AL team not winning a division that is doing better than that right now is the A’s.

rjspears
Member
rjspears
3 years 3 months ago

Besides that FBB data, I liked the fact the batters acknowledged a pitcher’s skill. It’s rare when a player acknowledge another players ability when the other player has shown them up. Both Hunter and Cabrera give Cobb a nod after he threw his best stuff at them. Baseball – it’s not all about money.

mlanger
Member
mlanger
3 years 3 months ago

I like the article, I just have a nit to pick (and it’s just a nit, no more).

“One wants to argue with xFIP, but it isn’t easy, except on the margins. It contains a lot of truth. … Here are the top four, by xFIP:

Alex
Guest
Alex
3 years 3 months ago

Love Cobb, and great article, thank you.

As a Cobb owner in 2 leagues, I am a tad concerned about his high strand/LOB rate (87%) and low BABIP (.263) especially when you consider how heavy of a GB pitcher he is. HR rate honestly doesn’t bother me b/c I agree that it likely is a little fluky, plus he really doesn’t give up that many fly balls to begin with (22.9%). Once BABIP/Strand rate normalize, he still looks great, just thinking he’s closer to a 3.2-3.4 ERA pitcher rather than a 2.39.

Hoping I’m wrong though!

wpDiscuz