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The Rays' next ace: Alex Cobb

8/29/2014
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

To describe Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb’s unusual windup, his pitching coach Jim Hickey has to actually go through the motion as he talks on the phone from his hotel room in Baltimore.

“He has a lot of quirky things going on,” Hickey said with a laugh.

Quirky, but ultimately extremely effective for the repertoire Cobb possesses.



The Tampa Bay starting rotation has jointly teamed to fill the void left by the departure of David Price.

Cobb has come up big almost every time he has taken the ball of late. He’s 9-6 this season, but he is 4-0 with a 1.20 ERA and no home runs allowed in his last seven starts heading into Sunday’s start against the Red Sox. The Rays might be out of the postseason race, but he has the look of someone who is taking his game to a higher level.

Cobb is at or near the top of the list in two notable, important statistics that go hand in hand with his success.

FanGraphs.com tracks a “run value” statistic to measure the effectiveness of the various pitch types. Positive results (strikes and outs) add to the value number. Negative results subtract from it. The more important the game situation, the bigger the reward or debit for each pitch.

Cobb’s changeup, for example, has accumulated 20 runs of value, meaning it is a pitch that has gotten significantly better than average results. The only pitcher with a changeup whose value is greater than Cobb’s is Felix Hernandez (22 runs).

“He can throw the changeup in any count,” said "Baseball Tonight" analyst Eduardo Perez, who had to prep his team for Cobb while coaching the Marlins and Astros. “It’s his go-to pitch. He has the ability to pitch backwards in one start [throwing a lot of changeups early in counts], then in the next start, he pitches off his fastball and keeps hitters off balance.”

Pitchers with elite changeups are hard to hit, and Cobb rates best in another stat -- hard-hit rate. Inside Edge, a video-tracking service that provides data to teams and media, charts every batted ball, rating each as hit soft, medium or hard.



Cobb has the lowest hard-hit rate of anyone with at least 80 innings pitched this season. He has allowed hard-hit balls in only 9 percent of the at-bats against him.

In Cobb’s past three starts, he has allowed a total of one hard-hit ball and passed White Sox ace Chris Sale for the hard-hit rate lead.

Pitching is an evolving process, and Cobb has discovered that what works best for him is different from what works for most other pitchers. His windup includes a pause point midwindup and a leg kick that would be best described as nontraditional.

If he hits his checkpoints (as Hickey referred to them), he’s in good position to throw any one of three pitches (fastball, curveball and the changeup) that have a similar spin.

“Most people do a leg kick where they bend their knee 45-degree angle to third base,” Cobb said earlier this week. “I try to reach to the catcher by squeezing my hip. That’s where the pause comes into play. It’s not to distract the hitter. I just want my arm to catch up to the rest of my body. A lot of people have told me that the pause messes with hitters. That’s just a bonus.”

“When he’s at his highest, he needs to be over the rubber,” Hickey said. “His arm is almost forming a C, it needs to feel like his arm is right over his head.

“That translates into a downhill plane. When he’s doing that regularly, you know he’s going to have a good day. You can usually tell from his first pitch or two in the bullpen.”

But getting to this point of 2014 wasn’t easy.

An oblique injury three starts into the season cost him six weeks and was one of several things that vexed the Rays early on.

When Cobb came back, he had a couple of good starts but also had a few in which he got pummeled, and there was a three-start span in which he lasted five innings in each.

“I hit a stretch where I was lost and I had to learn how to pitch all over again,” Cobb said. “Trying to do that while getting out major league hitters is not easy. At the All-Star break, I sat back, but I was still lost, wasn’t comfortable, was still all over the place, and I felt like I had exerted all the different types of problem-solving to try to fix it.

"I was talking with Hickey and Chris Archer, and they said I was too rotational, that the ball was sailing up and over the plate, rather than at a downward angle. I was playing catch before a game in St. Louis and the first ball I threw, it clicked; I threw seven scoreless innings.

"Besides the results, it was a relief to figure out the mechanics again. Now, I feel comfortable. When I throw, if I miss, I know why I miss. I get instant feedback.”



More often than not, Cobb has been right on. His changeup (which he throws more often than any other starting pitcher in baseball) drops similar to a split-fingered fastball, thanks to a grip that is a hybrid of the two pitches, and averages 87 mph (a drop of only 4-5 mph off his fastball). The amount of break on his curveball ranks among the top five in the game (it’s identical to that of Hernandez).

“If you’re a hitter, you can’t see the spin and say, 'That’s a changeup,'" Hickey said in explaining the success of the pitch. "It’s camouflaged. It really bottoms out. With the curveball, it’s the bite -- it has no hump. It comes out on the same plane as his fastball.”

With the Rays having traded Price and James Shields over the past two seasons, the team is ushering in a new era of pitching in which leadership is a tandem effort.

Cobb, Archer, Jeremy Hellickson and currently injured Matt Moore all have taken on important roles. They’ve welcomed in the new guys -- Jake Odorizzi (obtained in the Shields trade) and Drew Smyly (acquired in the Price deal), both of whom have fit in seamlessly.

“Our group adopted the Shields and Price attitude,” Cobb said. “I don’t think we’ve missed a beat because of what those two guys did when they were here. We knew it would be a tough transition.

"We all came up together," Cobb said of Hellickson, Archer, Moore and himself, "so I think it would be odd if one of us said, ‘I’m the leader of the staff now.’ When we have a new guy like Smyly come in, we collectively help him get comfortable.”

Cobb said that the idea of being an ace is more a tag for fans and media to latch on to. The way he has pitched lately, Cobb might hear more talk of that down the road.

“He has the makeup of a leader of a staff,” said one longtime major league scout. “His stuff and velocity won’t wow you, but his pitchability will. Does he have the stuff of Shields or Price? Not yet. But he has the other intangibles to get to that point. I’m a fan of his. He’s definitely going in the right direction.”