Where Did Alex Cobb’s Changeup Go?

Alex Cobb once had a power changeup so nasty we gave it a nickname. The Thing even had progeny: Cobb taught the grip to Jake Odorizzi, and Thing Two is now the latter pitcher’s best secondary pitch.

Likely the product of what appears to be an organization-wide focus on the changeup, Thing One was an impressive pitch. Unfortunately, it’s gone. At least for now. For the moment, it doesn’t resemble what it used to be, and Cobb is using it less and less often with each start. The weird part is, Cobb might still be okay, anyway.

Back in 2014, the split change was remarkable. Only five changeups got more swinging strikes, total, that season. Roughly 34% of the time, it was a swinging strike or a ground ball, which was eighth-best among changeups thrown 200 times that year and second-best among changeups thrown 500 times that season. It didn’t have a great velocity gap, but it dropped a whopping five inches more than his sinker. The average righty change, meanwhile, drops just a half-inch more than the sinker.

The Thing looked like this back then, in 2013:

Then Alex Cobb went under the knife. There are those who are sure that heavy split-finger usage leads to injury, a topic I studied in depth for the 2014 Hardball Times Annual. “I think there is a correlation between some stresses put on the arms — some guys have had elbow problems, forearm problems, shoulder problems — and that pitch” said Mike Scioscia to the Associated Press in 2011.

The samples are too small to use standard statistical analysis to tell us anything. Though Cobb said in 2014 that his family had “stretchy fingers” that made holding the pitch work for him, there might be something to the grip that is mechanically risky. There are two muscles in your flexor group that are responsible for stabilizing the elbow, and moving your middle finger away from your pointer finger, as you do in a split-finger setup, does activate those two muscles. Try it — you’ll feel some activation in your elbow if you split your fingers wide. It’s possible that activation may keep those muscles from doing their regular work.

That said, you normally throw the splitter just like a fastball, and many a successful pitcher has built his career on the pitch. Cobb was that pitcher. Unfortunately, the changeup hasn’t come back since he had Tommy John surgery.

Alex Cobb’s Changeup Over Time
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 5.9 -0.2 0.5 18.3%
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball
Velo and movement all defined off of the Sinker

You could look at the whiff total and think that everything is fine, but then there’s the highlighted difference in movement that’s huge. He doesn’t have a good velocity gap there — average is around 8 mph — so he needs to have plus movement. Right now, his splitter is moving less than his sinker horizontally and almost exactly the same as his sinker vertically.

It looks like this, now:

Perhaps because of discomfort or altered post-surgery mechanics, Cobb isn’t releasing the splitter in the same place. So he’s not getting the same drop he used to on the pitch.

It can take time to get the feel back. Brandon McCarthy said “everything just felt a little different” when he was coming back from his own Tommy John surgery. In particular, his curve “felt like a complete other pitch.” He feels more normal after a full offseason, but it looks like Cobb is probably dealing with similar issues.

On Monday against the Yankees, the Ray used the changeup 10 times, and the announcers were wondering where the pitch went. Last year, in his final two appearances, Cobb used the changeup 23 times total. Only twice before in his major-league career had Cobb used as few as 17 splitters in a regular-season game. Something’s missing.

The good news is that Cobb has another pitch that has slowly turned into an elite offering. His curveball has progressively gotten harder, to the point that it regularly averages more than 80 mph as it did Monday. Among the 111 curves that were thrown over 100 times and averaged over 80 mph last year, Cobb’s had the fourth-most drop. It basically looked the same as the curve thrown by Jameson Taillon, who also has a questionable change.

Maybe Cobb can make it work with that curve, good command of his fastball, and enough show-me changeups to get through the lineup a third time through the order. He’s lucky to have a really good breaking ball on which he can rely right now, as he struggles to get the changeup back after his surgery. Maybe we should’ve known a pitch nicknamed The Thing would have a mind of its own.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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swingofthings
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swingofthings

It’s strange, because though it didn’t have the same visibly absurd drop, his changeup did get thrown a ton in his first start of the season and seemed to get good results. You just have to wonder what he could look like if both the curve and change were at 100%.

I’m just glad we get to have more articles about Cobb at all, though.