March 12, 2013
Alex Cobb's Rising Auction Value
Rays righty Alex Cobb has been collecting a bit of fantasy helium in recent weeks. He went for $9 and $11 in recent expert league auctions, and some sites are suggesting that compare him to veterans like Hiroki Kuroda. Moreover, three members of the ESPN fantasy analyst panel recently pegged Cobb as their fantasy starting-pitcher sleeper.
We also know that Cobb is adding a new pitch to his arsenal—which consisted of a sinking fastball, a curveball, and a split-changeup in 2012—and that is one of several reasons to be bullish about the 25-year-old’s near-term potential. His 18.6 percent strikeout last year was around the league average, but he paired it with a solid, 7.0 percent walk rate, outperforming the league average for starting pitchers in that department. He also had a 1.25 WHIP, and his pedestrian 4.03 ERA was inflated by a 68.5 percent strand rate, which is a notch below his career clip of 70.3 percent. Finally, from an approach standpoint, Cobb’s ground-ball style (58.8 percent ground-ball rate last year) fits well in front of the Rays’ strong infield defense, which features Evan Longoria at third, Yunel Escobar at short, a quadtoon at second, and James Loney at first.
However, despite all of those signs of promise, Cobb also comes with a few concerns that must be assuaged if fantasy owners are to justify an investment along the lines of those recently made in expert leagues.
Back in mid-December, I wrote an article about how Jeremy Hellickson pitched better with runners on base (out of the stretch) than he did out of the windup. Resident mechanics expert Doug Thorburn gave a good, plausible explanation for that phenomenon in the comments:
Just an observation, but part of the explanation for his success with runners on could be mechanical.
Cobb is Hellickson’s evil-twin brother, in that he struggles when there are runners on base. Cobb has faced 475 hitters with the bases empty in his career, and he has limited those hitters to a .236/.303/.356 triple-slash line, to go with 90 strikeouts and only 35 walks (.278 BABIP). Conversely, when there are runners already on base, opposing hitters’ triple-slash line jumps to .276/.337/.376, and his BABIP against increases to .316.
Part of the reason Cobb has issues with men on base is that he is worried about controlling the running game. Cobb has a couple things working against him, in that regard: 1) He does not throw anything straight or hard, and 2) He is slow to the plate, making it easier for runners to steal bases when he is on the mound and more difficult for his catchers to throw them out. In fact, base-stealing hopefuls are 30-for-32 on their attempts against him in the majors, with Albert Pujols and Shin-Soo Choo representing the unfortunate duo.
Thorburn is not a fan of the slide step, because he believes that it leads to shortened strides, missed targets, and even global warming—and it is an element that he believes is holding Cobb back.
Cobb has a slow delivery from the windup, with a weird hitch after max leg lift, but he has figured out how to repeat that odd pattern. His stretch timing is completely different, especially with a slide step and a runner on first. He will ditch the slide step with a runner on third, but will still pitch from the stretch, so in effect he has three different timing patterns, but he has only mastered one of them.
He is opposite from Hellickson in that, while I like Hellickson’s release distance better from the stretch due to better momentum, Cobb's distance is muted by a short stride that mitigates his extra momentum. Cobb will be better from the windup until he harnesses a consistent timing pattern from the stretch, and I think the odds of him doing that would be much better if he scrapped the slide step. But, right now, the combination of disrupted timing and a short stride make him a much less effective pitcher from the stretch.
Here are Cobb’s pitch outcomes split into situations (data courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info):
Cobb strikes out a higher percentage of hitters out of the windup, as he gets more swings and misses while throwing a higher percentage of strikes. The pitch most adversely affected when Cobb switches from the windup to the stretch is his split-changeup. Cobb has thrown 544 split-changeups with the bases empty, and he has held batters to a .166 batting average and a .212 weighted on base average on those offerings. When at least one runner has been on base, though, the 422 split-changeups he has thrown have been turned around to the tune of a .270 average and a .370 wOBA.
According to his Brooks Baseball player card, Cobb has used the split-change 35 percent of the time in his career, and it is his weapon of choice in two-strike counts (47 percent vs. LHH, 50 percent vs. RHH in those situations. From reviewing Cobb’s heat maps, you’ll notice that he can effectively bury that split-change when pitching out of the wind-up, but he tends to both elevate the pitch and catch more of the plate with it when throwing from the stretch.
Cobb’s $9-11 price tag in expert auctions is fair, but given his incomplete development process, it’s tough to envision him delivering significant surplus value over that investment.