The signing of Alex Cobb, now, is an interesting blurb in history to gloss over two and a half years later.
Following a Wild Card appearance the year before, the 2017 Orioles moseyed on to a 75-87 record. The magic of the Buck Showalter era was closer to its conclusion than Orioles fans probably realized, as years of piecemeal rosters finally began to catch up to the winningest American League club of the previous five seasons.
Former general manager/executive vice president Dan Duquette was delusional enough to believe the 2018 Orioles had a chance to revive the magic of recent memory, ergo, the club signed Cobb to an impressive four-year, $57 million deal. Duquette’s last hurrah was exactly that, as the Orioles began restructuring the roster that summer.
Cobb’s debut season in Baltimore was disappointing results-wise, as he pitched to a ERA+ of 87 (4.90) and was yet another cog in an ineffective Orioles machine. His 2019 season was all of 12.1 innings, as he had surgery last June to repair a hip impingement. It all just seemed too perfectly cruel to a people far too accustomed to such things.
Yet here we are. The de facto bottom dwellers are 9-7, a game away from exceeding ESPN’s smug expectations, and providing worthwhile entertainment for the cardboard cutouts and us at home just about every night. The Orioles are 16.5 games in to the weirdest season of my lifetime, and in spite of their many obvious flaws, this team brings it.
One of the reasons for such a wondrous quarter turn around this 60-game season has been Cobb, who not only appears to be exactly what the Orioles paid for, but maybe even at his unparalleled best.
As of now, Cobb owns a 2.75 ERA (159 ERA+) in four starts, while hitters have only managed a .182 BABIP (5th in MLB) in 19.2 innings. His current 20.2 percent strikeout rate would be his highest figure in six years, and his 1.07 WHIP, if sustained, would become a career best.
Cobb isn’t particularly difficult to understand. He’s a three-pitch guy with a current fastball average of 92.6 mph, right at the league median. Even in the era of huck-it-chuck-it baseball, Cobb is still as reliant as ever on changing speeds and eye levels because he has to. Though I’d lean more towards calling it a straight up splitter, the most important pitch of that arsenal is the split-change.
The Cobb splitter is his defining pitch. It’s an illusionist offering that makes his fastball that much more effective, and when it’s fully operational, it’s the dive-bombing kind of offspeed pitch that should be thrown as much as possible in order to mask his average fastball. That leads us to my next point...
Alex Cobb Pitch Mix (2011-Present)
Cobb has never thrown his splitter more, because it hasn’t been this good in years. Following his Tommy John surgery in 2015, it took Cobb a while to build back up his arm swing and feel for the pitch.
As it finally appears that his splitter is where it was when Cobb was anchoring the Rays starting rotation, his weighted changeup value of 3.1 is third-best in baseball as of right now. The whiff rate on his splitter has risen from 15 percent during his first two years as an Oriole to over 27 percent this season, a clear sign the splitter is back to darting, rather than floating.
The leftward image is Cobb’s splitter placement during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, while the right image is the current season. Clearly Cobb is manipulating the baseball to more tilt, while his command of the pitch has also improved as there is considerably more red mass underneath the strike zone. With his splitter back to a lofty status quo, Cobb has managed to produce baseball’s third-highest ground ball rate among starters (64.9 percent), and his current overall whiff rate of 11.8 percent would finish as a career best.
Will the Orioles consider trading Cobb? It would be entirely too stupid not to consider trading a valuable asset at a time of collecting younger, more valuable pieces. However, for right now, I think it’s more appropriate to appreciate what the Orioles are currently pulling off, and point at Cobb as one of the primary reasons for such a stunning start. Hell, with only 44 games left on the schedule, Cobb could end up being the go-to guy down what’s already the home stretch.
The world is presently complicated, but seeing someone succeed after such trial and error the likes of which Cobb has experienced is a simple pleasure. Like the team he represents, the success was worth the wait.