Going into the off-season, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim had a serious need for starting pitching. Rumors of going after Trevor Bauer and pursuing a big-name starter through trade were met with a flurry of smaller moves that included the signing of Alex Cobb. The signing was met with a flurry of responses that seemed to say that the Angels had once again failed to put together a solid pitching staff around generational talents Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout. Ohtani himself has pitched well and is the most talented pitcher on the staff, but Alex Cobb has been their best pitcher so far this year despite his higher ERA. Cobb is making a potential career-defining turnaround at 33 years old and it was nearly impossible to see coming. How is Alex Cobb making his comeback?
Cobb has made some tweaks to his pitching arsenal from years past. While he still commands the usual sinker, splitter, and curveball that he’s had in his career, he’s using them and moving them in different ways. Changing up the counts he throws his pitches in and where he locates those pitches as well.
Starting with the sinker, Cobb’s primary pitch still, he’s throwing it at its lowest rate since before 2017 when it wasn’t a regularly featured part of his arsenal. He throws the pitch about 41% of the time but throws it early in counts closer to 55% of the time. In 2018, Cobb’s last full season, he threw his sinker on the first pitch about 60% of the time but that has dropped here in 2021 to about 56%. Cobb is using his sinker early in counts still but he’s trying to be more unpredictable with the pitch. His sinker still moves in below-average ways, but he is limiting the amount of vertical break on the ball better than he had in the past and is unable to generate a significant amount of horizontal break on it. This leads to trying to get hitters off of the pitch more.
In 2021, 42% of Cobb’s outs have come on his sinker – well below his 50% mark back in 2018. In a trade-off though, his CSW% has gone up from 27% to almost about 30% on the pitch. He might be getting fewer outs on the pitch, but because he’s throwing it less and keeping hitters off of it more, it’s become a better pitch. His groundball rate has increased on it so far this year but the sample size on it is too small to compare it to 2018 yet. We can see a pattern in his location of the pitch compared to 2018 though, as he’s been much better at keeping the pitch down in the zone.
A large focus from Cobb on keeping the ball down in the zone will help his other off-speed pitches – especially pairing his sinker with his splitter, which has made for a lethal combination.
Alex Cobb is throwing his splitter more than ever. He throws the pitch 40% of the time, 5% higher than any year prior. He seldom throws it when it’s early in the count or he’s behind in the count, but once he is ahead of a hitter, he is going to be throwing the pitch a lot. In two-strike counts this year, he’s thrown 116 splitters to hitters. With 221 two-strike pitches total, over half of them have been splitters. The pitch is his main out pitch. He also has a 23.3% putaway rate with the pitch, the highest in his arsenal.
He’s getting some more movement on the pitch this year than he did in 2020. The pitch moved about 13.6 inches last season but is moving 16.4 inches so far this year. He has sacrificed some vertical movement on the pitch to get a near-elite amount of horizontal movement on the pitch. Cobb didn’t adjust the spin direction of the pitch at all and perhaps just changed the grip ever so slightly to get a more natural run on the ball. That’s why it’s become a perfect out pitch for him with his sinker. Out of the hand, it can look the same, and the run he gets on the pitch can make the hitter think it’s the sinker. Then it falls lower and moves much slower, and the hitter doesn’t have a chance to make contact.
Finally, Cobb’s knuckle-curveball is a fun final addition to his arsenal. He only throws the pitch about 18% of the time, but he throws it on the first pitch nearly double that rate. He has a 24% called strike rate which means he’s either fooling a lot of hitters on the pitch, or he’s just throwing it over early to get ahead in the count. He only has four strikeouts on the pitch, so he doesn’t use it when he’s ahead in the count. He’s thrown just 20 curveballs in two-strike counts this year. That’s not the usual way someone throws a curveball, but it’s been effective for Cobb.
His curveball has produced 13 batted balls this year, eight of them have been on the ground and none of them have been barrels. He has given up 7 hard-hit balls on the pitch though so hitters can hit the pitch hard, they’re rarely looking for it, so they don’t put the ball in play often. While his 38% CSW and -1.1 RV/100 would indicate that Cobb could throw the pitch more, I think he throws it the perfect amount. Enough to keep hitters honest, but not so much to the point where they expect to see it in certain situations.
All of this has led to what has made Cobb so good this year, he’s getting swings and misses at a career-best rate.
Whiffing More Than Ever
Cobb has made his career on being a groundball pitcher who limits the walks but won’t strike many guys out. His career-best SwStr% entering this season was 10.6 back in 2014. That was the only season in his career where Cobb had an above-average SwStr%, and one of his two years where he had an above-average strikeout rate. Probably all the more reason that you might be stunned to realize that Alex Cobb has a 29% strikeout rate and a 12.7% swinging-strike rate. Among starters in the AL with at least 40 innings, Cobb is 11th in strikeout rate and 20th in SwStr%. This is a brand-new version of himself and he’s getting it done with his splitter.
I already mentioned how Cobb throws his splitter as his primary outpitch, but he throws it as his primary swing-and-miss pitch as well. In 2018, Cobb got 93 swings and misses on 644 pitches that year. He’s recorded 61 swings and misses on 277 pitches this year. For those who don’t want to do the math (I don’t blame you) that’s an eight percent increase in swinging-strike rate. Whatever tweak he made to his splitter, is working so far, and we could see the roots of this in the 2020 season where he had a similar swinging strike rate. In two-strike counts, Cobb has recorded 27 swinging strikes, a 23% swinging-strike rate with the pitch in that situation. The location of the pitch is almost exclusively down and in to righties and down and away to lefties, making it tough to barrel up and easier to swing through from either side of the plate.
While Cobb’s curveball does have a near 35% whiff rate, he doesn’t get a lot of swings on the pitch. He only generates about a 38% swing rate on his curveball, well below his swing% as a whole on the year. He does still have a 13% swinging strike rate which is good, but if you saw the 35% whiff rate you might be deceived into thinking it’d be higher. Given the way Cobb uses his curveball, a 13% swinging-strike rate is surprisingly high but the whiff rate can still make you think it’d be higher. He does have a near 38% CSW on the pitch as already mentioned, so it’s helping set up a lot of strikeouts.
Cobb doesn’t get a lot of swings and misses on his sinker and nor should he – that’s not what the pitch is meant to do. It’s a good setup pitch for his splitter and works well off of his curveball to be effective in getting hitters off-balance. If he’s found a new ability to get strikeouts, how come his ERA is still above 4?
The Bad Luck Results
When it comes to discussing anything with the Angels, the phrase “bad luck” is almost always going to be brought up. Few franchises have had worse luck in the past few years and now Cobb is dealing with that same bad luck on the Angels. To understand just how unlucky he’s been this year, we need to start with Cobb’s stellar ground ball rate. Cobb has generated around a 59% ground ball rate this year, which is in the top five among pitchers with at least 40 innings. Getting guys to hit the ball on the ground when you do give up contact is a great way to limit the damage against you – but only if your defense is helping you out. Among pitchers who have generated at least 50 ground balls, Cobb ranks near the middle of the pack in conversion to outs at 77.4%. That’s still above average, but given the number of ground balls he generates; you’d hope for that number to be higher.
You can see this be reflected in his last start against the Seattle Mariners. While he gave up a grand slam to Jake Fraley, Mitch Haniger reached on a bloop single that should have been caught by the right fielder, and Taylor Trammell reached on a ground ball single that also probably could have been an out somewhere. If they had converted outs on both of those plays, then Cobb never faces Fraley. Still, Cobb should throw a better pitch to avoid giving up the grand slam, but he hasn’t gotten much help from his defense all year. Among all starters, Cobb ranks 239 out of 262 in pitcher OAA. What’s worse about that is he doesn’t have the lowest ranking out of people on his team, Griffin Canning has the 4th worst rate in baseball. Misery loves company, I guess?
It’s easy to point to Cobb’s peripheral statistics to also visualize how very unlucky he’s been. He has a 70th percentile hard-hit rate, and a 94th percentile barrel rate this year. He’s given up just three barrels this year and only two home runs. He’s been excellent at limiting the type of contact against him but because of his defense, he has an ERA north of four. His FIP and xFIP are under three, and his SIERA hovers just around it. Everything points to his luck turning around. He’s at the mercy of his defense right now, and if Cobb can continue to get hitters to beat the ball into the ground, hopefully, his defense can start turning more balls into outs.
This new version of Alex Cobb is brilliant to watch, and I look forward to seeing him continue to pitch well. A career-changing comeback year could be the tale of the season for him, and hopefully, it’s met with a potential push to get the best player in baseball where he belongs, the postseason.
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