21 June 2018

This Isn't The Alex Cobb The Orioles Hoped They Were Getting

It was a surprise when the Orioles signed Alex Cobb in late March, and it showed, in their own, weird way, they were still kinda/sorta trying to win even while dropping payroll. The O's offseason didn't qualify as reloading, but it wouldn't have been a huge stretch for them to finish the 2018 season with a record around .500. It's what the O's have done for years; they don't go all in or reload in any realistic sense.

Instead, well, the Orioles are terrible and almost nothing has gone according to plan (whatever that plan happened to be). There are many reasons why the O's are so bad, but one of them is that Cobb has not been any kind of solution.

Because he signed so late in the offseason, Cobb did not make his Orioles debut until April 14. He allowed seven earned runs that day. In his next two starts, he allowed five earned runs in each game. In the outings since, he's sprinkled in a handful of useful starts, but then again in his last two outings, he allowed 14 combined runs. In his final season in Baltimore, Ubaldo Jimenez posted a 6.81 ERA and a 5.54 FIP in 142-plus innings. In 63 innings this season, Cobb has an ERA of 7.14 and a FIP of 5.22.

It's not all bad for Cobb, but a lot of it is. He's not missing bats; his K% of 14.8% would be the lowest of his career. This would also be the third straight year in which his percentage of swinging strikes has dropped. His HR/FB rate of 18.8% would easily be a career high. On the other hand, Cobb's BB% of 5.5% would be the lowest of his career, but that isn't doing much to help him.

The Orioles surely hoped to get something close to the 2017 version of Cobb, when he threw almost 180 innings with a 3.66 ERA and a 4.16 FIP. Just glancing at Cobb's 2018 numbers, it's easy to focus on the .364 BABIP. For much of his career, he's finished somewhere between .279 and .295. He could be dealing with some bad luck, but not as much as you'd think. This season, Cobb has allowed harder contact to opposing batters:

2017: 87.8 avg. exit velocity
2018: 89.6 avg. exit velocity

That jump of about 2 mph is hardly insignificant. Cobb has been hit hard early and often:

2017: .304 wOBA, .328 xwOBA
2018: .405 wOBA, .368 xwOBA

Last year, Cobb's wOBA allowed was 101 points lower, and his expected wOBA was 40 points better. He's still probably not 7+ ERA bad (that's more like Chris Tillman territory), but it's not like he's some great pitcher who is having a few extra singles drop in. Even a .368 wOBA would put him near the bottom group of pitchers.

So what's going on? The hope at the time of the signing was that Cobb would be able to throw "The Thing," his nasty split-changeup, more often. Before his 2018 debut, he was excited about the pitch's potential:
"It was the best it has been this last start I had. I’m really feeling confident in it. Going through that phase early last year, I lost the confidence in it. That was a main reason I shied away from it. Once you start having that success with it and seeing the action you are looking for, that confidence builds up very quickly. That is key on all your pitches, but with a changeup, a feel pitch, you have to have that consistent arm speed and aggressiveness you have on the other pitches. Having that confidence come back is going to be huge."
Unfortunately, Cobb is still shying away from it. At his peak he was throwing the pitch more than a third of the time. Last season, he threw it 14.4%. This year, he's throwing it only slightly more: 16.5% of the time.

Now, many hitters are sitting back and looking for the two pitches Cobb throws most often: a low-90s sinker and a curveball. When they make contact, they're doing more damage:

2017: .174 ISO on sinkers; .084 ISO on curveballs
2018: .243 ISO on sinkers; .300 ISO on curveballs

Still, Cobb didn't throw the split-change much last season either, and he got away with it. So it's not surprising to discover that he hasn't located his pitches well this season. In 2017, he often stayed in on right-handers and away from lefties:

In 2018, he has often been where you don't want to be:

Opposing batters aren't chasing Cobb's out-of-zone pitches as much. He's never had a chase rate below 30%, and so far this season, it's 28.6%.

Before Cobb had Tommy John surgery in 2015, he was able to throw his split-change while getting very little vertical movement. The difference in vertical movement isn't that much different than his sinker, his fastball of choice. Since then, things just haven't been the same, and it's not surprising that he doesn't have much confidence in the pitch.

There's also very little chance that Cobb has much confidence in the defense behind him. As noted above, he has been far from great, but the Orioles have some awful defenders. The club's outfield defense is absolutely brutal, and the O's are rated the worst in both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. That's at least a part of the reason why opposing hitters have a .324 BABIP against the O's, the highest mark in the majors. (The next closest is the Rockies at .310.)

Like many of the team's players, all the Orioles can do with Cobb is hope he gets things together. No team would want him right now, but even if they did, Cobb could block a trade to any club this season. From 2019-2021, he can block trades to 10 teams per year. It's possible he could improve and then be shipped out of town in one of the next few years, but for now, the O's just need him to pitch better.

It may be a tall task for someone who essentially only has two pitches to be anything more than a back-end starter. The O's were hoping for much more, but an ERA below 6 doesn't sound so bad at the moment.

Photo: Keith Allison. Stats (as of June 19) via FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Brooks Baseball. Contract info via Cot's.

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