Scouting the Free Agent Market: Alex Cobb

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Coming into the offseason it was clear the Yankees need at least one starting pitcher, if not two given the big workloads the staff endured in 2017. In a perfect world one of those two starters would’ve been Shohei Ohtani. That won’t happen though. Re-signing CC Sabathia seems likely, at least I think so, but even then there’s still room for another starter. There’s no such thing as too much pitching depth.

One of the top free agent starters this offseason — I’d say he’s the top second tier starter behind Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta — is longtime Rays right-hander Alex Cobb. He turned 30 in October, and even though the Rays haven’t been a .500 team since 2013 (true story), Cobb has been through the AL East grinder and knows what it’s like pitching against great teams in tough hitter friendly environments. The Yankees have not been seriously connected to him yet, only speculatively, though I suspect it’ll happen at some point. Let’s break Cobb down as a potential target.

Injury History

This is the logical place to start, because Cobb’s injury history is sneaky long. So long in fact that his 179.1 innings this season represent a new career high. Here’s a recap of his injury history with the amount of time missed:

  • 2010: Oblique strain (one month)
  • 2011: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery (missed final two months of the season)
  • 2013: Concussion (two months after being hit by a line drive)
  • 2014: Oblique strain (six weeks)
  • 2015: Tommy John surgery (entire season)
  • 2016: Tommy John surgery rehab (returned to MLB in late August)
  • 2017: Turf toe (three weeks)

Definitely some fluky stuff in there that is not a long-term concern. Two oblique strains four years apart? It happens. Turf toe? Whatever. Getting hit in the head by a line drive and being carted off the field on a stretcher, as scary as that is, is a total fluke. The baddest of bad luck injuries.

On the other hand, Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is very serious and can end careers if not caught early enough. Tommy John surgery is obviously very bad too. The combination of the two is worse than the sum of the parts. Chris Carpenter is the only notable example of a pitcher who had both and went on to have a long career. Shaun Marcum and Noah Lowry had both and were done. Jaime Garcia had both and hasn’t been the same since. Same with Matt Harvey, though he’s only a year removed from his Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery.

The good news is Cobb had the procedures five years apart, and he returned in 2017 to be an effective pitcher in close to 180 innings. So perhaps he’s the next Carpenter rather than the next Marcum. In fact, he’s already ahead of the game just by making it back from both procedures and throwing a full season. Still though, that’s a pretty scary injury history, even ignoring the fluky stuff.

Recent Performance

When Cobb returned with his new elbow late last year, he was so bad that it’s almost hard to believe. He allowed 22 runs and 39 baserunners in five starts and 22 innings last season, after returning in August. Yuck. That said, it was his first five starts back from Tommy John surgery, so it’s fair to cut the guy some slack. Chalk it up to the rust and the usual post-elbow reconstruction wonkiness.

This season Cobb was much better, as he got further away from Tommy John surgery, though he did not perform like he did immediately prior to the injury. His numbers were down across the board. Here is Cobb’s final pre-Tommy John surgery season and his first full post-Tommy John surgery season:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2014 166.1 2.87 3.23 21.9% 6.9% 56.2% 0.6 .294 .265
2017 179.1 3.66 4.16 17.3% 5.9% 47.8% 1.1 .311 .295

Do you remember what baseball was like in 2014? Nobody scored runs. Teams scored, on average, 4.07 runs per game. The Angels led baseball with 4.77 runs per game that year. This season teams averaged 4.65 runs per game with the Astros leading the pack at 5.53 runs per game. The juiced ball has brought back offense, thankfully. I missed it.

Anyway, because of the offensive explosion from 2014 to 2017, we have to throw Cobb a bit of a bone here. His home run rate nearly doubled? Okay, part of that is what’s going on around baseball in general. The decline in strikeout rate and ground ball rate is not a juiced ball problem, however. In fact, we should’ve expected Cobb’s strikeout rate to increase this year because there are so many more strikeouts in baseball now.

That 2.87 ERA and 3.23 FIP in 2014 work out 77 ERA- and an 88 FIP-, meaning his ERA was 23% better than average and his FIP was 12% better than average. This year he had 86 ERA- and a 97 FIP-. Still better than average! But not as good as before Tommy John surgery when adjusted for ballpark and the offensive environment around baseball. Long story short: Cobb was good this year, but not as good as he was before blowing out his elbow.

Current Stuff

If you’ve been watching the Yankees long enough, chances are you’ve seen Cobb shut them down with that nasty split-finger fastball of his at some point. That pitch is the reason he made it to the big leagues. That pitch is also perhaps the biggest red flag surrounding Cobb at this point. Since Tommy John surgery, it has behaved almost nothing it did before he had his elbow rebuilt.

Eno Sarris touched on this back in April, but that was very early in the season, and now we have a full season’s worth of data to examine. Cobb’s splitter lost quite a bit of effectiveness from his pre-Tommy John surgery days. Here are the splitter numbers, ignoring that short and messy 2016 stint.

% Thrown Velo Gap Vert Mvmt Diff Horiz Mvmt Diff % Whiffs % GB
2013 32.7% 5.23 5.70 -0.29 18.9% 60.0%
2014 37.7% 5.26 5.22 0.76 21.1% 62.0%
2017 14.3% 6.07 1.72 -0.34 12.3% 51.8%

Cobb does throw his curveball regularly, though the sinker and splitter are his top two pitches, and that’s what we’re comparing here. The velocity gap and movement differences are between the sinker and splitter. That’s the whole point, right? Use the sinker to set up the splitter. You want the pitches to be similar but different, if that makes sense. A couple quick observations:

  • This year Cobb threw his trademark splitter way less than ever before in his MLB career. Imagine if Masahiro Tanaka did that? He’d be an entirely different pitcher.
  • Cobb had a larger velocity gap between his sinker and splitter this year than he did in 2013 and 2014, and that’s good. You want a big velocity gap between your fastball and offspeed stuff.
  • From 2013-14, Cobb’s splitter dropped more than five inches more than his sinker. This year the difference was less than two inches. That’s a significant difference. The bottom wasn’t falling out of the split.
  • The difference in horizontal movement between the two pitches was about the same this year as 2013, though way less than 2014. (The negative number in the table means the sinker moved more horizontally than the split.)

Ideally you want an 8-10 mph gap between your fastball and offspeed pitch (if not more), but even at his best from 2013-14, Cobb’s velocity gap was roughly five-and-a-quarter miles an hour. Because he doesn’t have that huge velocity gap, he relies on movement more than most, and for whatever reason, the split is not moving like it did before Tommy John surgery, especially vertically. It’s not diving out of the zone.

It should also be noted Cobb’s release point with his splitter — and only his splitter, weirdly — has risen since he came back from Tommy John surgery. He’s releasing the splitter from a higher spot than before his elbow ligament gave out. Look:

alex-cobb-release-point

That is weird. Is the change in release point causing the lack of movement? Or has Cobb raised his release point in an effort to generate more movement? Chicken or the egg, man. Chicken or the egg. Whatever it is, Cobb is not getting the same movement on his splitter now as he did before Tommy John surgery, and as a result, the pitch is generating fewer swings and misses and ground balls. And he’s not throwing it nearly as often.

The split-finger is what made Cobb so good before Tommy John surgery and that pitch is the key to him being a quality pitcher going forward. His sinker is fine and his curveball is fine, but they’re not good enough that he can scale back that much on his splitter and succeed forever. Like I said, what if Tanaka stopped throwing his splitter so much? He’d be a much different pitcher. Anyway, here’s some video of Cobb this year:

Seven strikeouts in the video. Four on sinkers and three on curveballs. Not one splitter. That would’ve been unthinkable for Cobb before Tommy John surgery. Bottom line: Cobb was quite good this season, but his splitter is not the same as it was before his elbow gave out for whatever reason, and unless that changes, there’s no reason to think he’ll return to his previous level of performance. He’s now a solid starter, not someone who is a borderline ace like he was from 2013-14. And hey, that’s fine. Solid starters are good to have.

Contract Estimates

Cobb is one of the top free agent starters on the market and that means he will be paid quite well. Quality starters never have trouble finding work. Here are two contract estimates:

I think both estimates are low. I could totally see Cobb pulling down $16M annually on a four or even five-year deal. That’s Ian Kennedy money. No, Kennedy did not have Tommy John surgery in his recent past, but he also wasn’t as good as Cobb, and he was a year older than Cobb is now when he hit free agency. Cobb at four years and $48M sounds pretty great actually, splitter issues be damned.

Also, keep in mind the Rays made Cobb the qualifying offer. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement the Yankees would have to surrender their second and fifth round picks in the 2018 draft, and $1M in bonus money during the 2018-19 international signing period, to sign a qualified free agent. I’d rather give all that up than my first round pick like they did in old days, but that’s just me.

Does He Make Sense For The Yankees?

Yes because he’s a quality starter — even with his post-Tommy John surgery splitter — and the Yankees could use another quality starter. It sure doesn’t hurt that Cobb is AL East battle tested and turned only 30 in October, meaning you should get another year or two of peak performance, in theory. The Yankees need another starter and Cobb is among the best available, so yes, he’s a fit on the field.

Is he fit under the luxury tax plan? My calculations say the Yankees have about $35M to play with under the luxury tax threshold, though I underestimated the team’s contribution to player benefits, so it’s actually closer to $32M or so. Still though, that’s a nice chunk of change, so the Yankees can afford Cobb. Can they afford Cobb and Sabathia? Eh, probably not. Remember, they have to leave some money open for midseason call-ups and the trade deadline additions.

Personally, I think Cobb carries an awful lot of risk. He has both Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and Tommy John surgery in his history and his best pitch is not the same anymore, and I think it’s much more likely the pitch gets worse going forward with age, not better. Maybe Cobb will bounce back next year and pitch like the 2013-14 version of himself, or even just maintain his 2017 performance. I’m not willing to bet $12M or $14M or $16M or whatever it ends up being on him. It doesn’t matter what I think though. It matters what the Yankees think, and whether they’re willing to take the risk.

The Yankees are reportedly “very interested” in Alex Cobb, but should they be?

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

This offseason the Yankees will have to replace at least one, and possibly two, starting pitchers. CC Sabathia is due to become a free agent and Masahiro Tanaka could opt-out of his contract. I think it’ll happen. Even if it doesn’t, the Yankees will still need to replace Sabathia. And hey, maybe they’ll just re-sign Sabathia. I’d be cool with it. Sabathia is still the man.

Inevitably, the Yankees will be connected to several free agent pitchers this offseason, including the top guys like Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. Even when the Yankees aren’t interested, agents say they are because it’s good for their clients, and the Yankees usually play ball because it means an opposing team will have to pay more. I would be surprised if the Yankees signed a top free agent this winter though. We’ll see.

Among the many mid-range free agents due to hit the market this offseason is Rays right-hander Alex Cobb, who we’ve seen plenty of times over the years. The splitter specialist has a 3.63 ERA (4.15 FIP) in 173.1 innings this season, his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Cobb, who turns 30 in two weeks, threw 309.2 innings with a 2.82 ERA (3.29 FIP) from 2013-14, before blowing out his elbow.

According to Nick Cafardo, the Yankees are among the teams “very interested” in Cobb. I had a feeling a “Yankees like Alex Cobb” report was coming at some point. On the surface, this makes sense. The Yankees need a starter, Cobb is AL battle tested, and he shouldn’t cost as much as Darvish or Arrieta (or Tanaka). Does that make him a good target though? Let’s look under the hood a bit.

1. His ground ball rate is trending down. During his peak years from 2013-14, Cobb ran a 56.0% ground ball rate, fourth highest among the 86 pitches to throw at least 300 innings those seasons. This year Cobb is down to a 47.7% ground ball rate, which isn’t awful, but it took a recent spike just to get it that high:

alex-cobb-grounders

Granted, we have to cut Cobb some slack here because this is his first full season following Tommy John surgery, but how much slack is appropriate? Losing close to ten percentage points off your ground ball rate following elbow reconstruction is not insignificant.

2. The splitter has stopped getting swings and misses. In addition to all the ground balls, Cobb also ran a healthy 22.5% strikeout rate from 2013-14, so he combined the best of both worlds. Strikeouts and grounders. His success was not a mirage. Cobb was a bat missing, ground ball generating machine from 2013-14.

This season Cobb’s strikeout rate is down to 17.3%, which ranks 50th among the 63 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. The swing-and-miss rate on his splitter tells you all you need to know:

alex-cobb-splitter-whiff-rate

Hmmm. That doesn’t look good. The splitter is Cobb’s go to pitch. Take that pitch away from him and he’s not the same guy. Imagine Tanaka without his splitter? Well, we don’t have to imagine, we saw it earlier this season. For whatever reason Tanaka’s splitter wasn’t behaving properly earlier this year, and he was throwing batting practice. Cobb hasn’t been that bad. But how much longer until he is that bad? Bottom line: his splitter has not been a quality swing-and-miss offering. That undeniably cuts into his effectiveness.

3. Hitters are making much more hard contact. Not surprisingly, Cobb is allowing more hard contact this season, and that’s never good. When your trademark pitch isn’t working, it affects everything. Cobb’s fastball isn’t as effective as usual because hitters don’t have to worry so much about the split. Anyway, here’s his hard contact rate:

alex-cobb-hard-contact

Yeah. That’s not good. Fewer strikeouts plus fewer ground balls plus more hard contact is not a good combination. That’s why Cobb has gone from a 2.82 ERA pre-Tommy John surgery to a (not bad!) 3.63 ERA post-Tommy John surgery. There are enough red flags here to be skeptical of Cobb going forward.

* * *

It is so very easy to look at a potential trade or free agent target and come with reasons not to pursue him. I know I am guilty of it. All the time. So, for the sake of looking at both sides, what are some of the reasons to pursue Cobb as a free agent this offseason? First of all, if a 3.63 ERA (4.15 FIP) and not missing a start constitutes a down season, you’re pretty darn good. Two, Cobb has shown he can succeed in the tough AL East. That’s cool.

And three — and this might be the biggest reason to buy into Cobb long-term — it’s not unreasonable to think his performance will improve as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery. This is his first full season back. He’s shaking off the rust. Cobb’s not old — again, he’ll turn 30 in two weeks — so there should still be a few years of peak or near-peak performance coming. He’s essentially a high-end bounceback candidate.

I am curious to see how Cobb’s market shakes out this offseason. I get the sense he’s going to be a very popular player with basically every contender in the mix. Want him? You’re going to have to outbid the Cubs, the Red Sox, the Nationals, the Cardinals, the Angels, the Dodgers, the Diamondbacks … every contender is going to show interest in this guy. Even though Cobb comes with some very real red flags, there are also reasons to be optimistic. I’m not 100% sold on him as a free agent target at the moment, but this offseason, he’ll be very in demand, and the Yankees figure to be among his suitors.