A whole lot of why the Orioles situation is currently what it is can be traced to poor decisions that were made during the later years of Dan Duquette’s tenure in charge of the team’s baseball operations. That is not to say that every decision made was bad. The 2020 O’s season turned out a bit better than expected with some contribution from Duquette-era prospects like Ryan Mountcastle, Keegan Akin, and Dean Kremer, with hopes still remaining for others still in the minors.
Then there are those decisions that are still bewildering. One of them is the decision to sign Alex Cobb. Now 75% of the way through his four-year contract, Cobb has not been able to do much to show that he is the kind of pitcher Duquette thought he was signing. And not that this is Cobb’s fault, exactly, but it remains absurd that Duquette surveyed the 2018 roster that was about to win 47 games and thought, “We just need to sign Cobb and Andrew Cashner and we’ll be fine.”
The immediate good news for Cobb is that the 2020 season was his best yet as an Oriole. The bad news is that this doesn’t say much, because his prior two seasons included one in which he started only three games due to injuries and another in which he posted a 4.90 ERA and 4.80 FIP over 152.1 innings.
Let’s keep going with the good news. Cobb’s 2020 ERA was 4.30 over ten starts. When translated into the league-adjusted stat ERA+, that added up to 106, or about 6% better than the average pitcher. That’s not going to win any Cy Young awards, but it is fine if that’s a pitcher who nobody expects to be the staff ace. The O’s rotation overall had a 5.09 ERA. If the starters had collectively pitched like Cobb, the Orioles would have probably been a .500 team.
For Cobb, that ERA over that many innings added up to 1.0 WAR on Baseball Reference. The magic number for figuring out what a 60-game pace would be over 162 games is 2.7, because 60 times 2.7 is 162. If Cobb had posted 2.7 WAR in each of the last two years, the signing would be less of a cause for lament. Of course, it’s not so easy to just assume that Cobb’s or anybody else’s 60 game performance would carry all the same rates through a full regular season.
One other positive is that for the first time as an Oriole, Cobb had a ground ball rate over 50%. His 2020 batted balls were on the ground 54.5% of the time. When Cobb was most successful in Tampa Bay back in 2013 and 2014, he had a GB% of 55.8 and 56.2, respectively.
Ground balls are good because they are not going to go over the outfield fence. Considering that more than one in five of fly balls off Cobb in 2020 turned into home runs, it is crucial for him to get as many on the ground as he can. If it’s a sign of a return towards his pre-surgery success, that would be a plus for the O’s.
The Fielding Independent Pitching stat, which is less results-based than ERA, gives Cobb a 4.87. That suggests performance more in line with his 2017 disappointment than a step forward somewhere positive. The problem for Cobb is that he didn’t strike out very many guys, with a 38-18 strikeout-walk ratio over his 52.1 innings.
In Fangraphs WAR, this added up to 0.6. Going again for our 2.7 multiplier, that adds up to about 1.6 in a full season. If Cobb had three full Orioles seasons at that number, there would be fewer sighs when his name is mentioned. Maybe if he is on the right track, he can rack up another 1.5 WAR in 2021 and the only bad thing about his contract will really just be Duquette’s judgement that the 2018 Orioles were going somewhere.
I’m not convinced it’ll be that easy to assume solid 2021 performance for Cobb. One thing that stands out is a particular worry for me is that Cobb allowed an average exit velocity of 91.3mph in his ten starts. There were 81 MLB pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2020. Cobb’s EV is the third-worst of the bunch. The question going into next year will be whether this EV was unlucky to be so high, because he didn’t have another 20 starts to regress to a lower mean, or whether this EV average means his ERA was fortunate to be so low.
The difference in contact quality between 2018 and 2020 for Cobb is notable. In 2018, he had an EV of 89.0. That came from Cobb allowing, according to Fangraphs, soft contact 20.9% of the time, and hard contact 32.2% of the time. In 2020, that changed to soft contact just 12.5% of the time and hard contact 40.5% of the time. If batters are having an easy time squaring a pitcher up, that’s not going to go well for him in the long run.
It is probably the case that the Orioles would have liked to have Cobb’s $15 million salary for 2021 off the books long before the COVID pandemic came along and wreaked havoc on ticket revenue. With every other team having been socked in the same way, it’s hard to imagine Cobb’s 2020 action is going to be enough to get a team thinking they’ve got to trade for that guy. I think a team would have to be convinced the EV problem is temporary, and I think only some improved 2021 pitching could convince them of that.
Unless some kind of injury comes along between now and April 1, Cobb figures to be in the Opening Day rotation for the 2021 Orioles. Maybe he will have some veteran wisdom to pass to Akin and Kremer. If he pitches well enough, he’ll probably get traded to open up rotation room for somebody like Michael Baumann or Zac Lowther.