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May 23, 2013
The Incredible New Neal Cotts
I appreciate the leap of faith it took to click this link, knowing full well that the article it took you to would be about Neal Cotts. You could have spent this time, during which you’re probably supposed to be working, reading about much more famous players, whose names are more likely to come up in conversation and make you sound smart. You probably won't ever sound smart because of Neal Cotts. But Cotts' story is exciting. It’s not just that he's back in the majors after wandering in the baseball wilderness for years. That part is pretty cool, of course, considering how long he’s been away. But if that were all it was, the excitement would wear off quickly. What makes the story special is that Cotts, at age 33, has come back a completely different guy, a completely dominant guy, and, until proven otherwise, possibly the best pitcher who has ever thrown outside the realm of the immortals. And now that I’ve hopefully hooked you, let’s recap how Cotts sank into the obscurity from which he recently returned.
You might remember Cotts from his days with the White Sox and Cubs. Then again, you might not, since he was a mostly unremarkable reliever. His most memorable season was 2005, when he won a World Series with the Sox after posting a 1.94 ERA in 60 1/3 innings. Even that season wasn’t nearly as good as it seemed on the surface: Cotts had the lowest HR/FB rate (1.8 percent) and one of the lowest BABIPs (.237) of any pitcher to top 60 innings. In all other seasons combined, Cotts recorded a 5.14 ERA in relief. He struck out about eight batters per nine, walked about four, and gave up too many home runs. He was a lefty, but not a specialist, since he had a career reverse split (southpaws slugged .456 against him).
This sounds like the description of a replacement-level player with one of the least exciting profiles a pitcher could have. And that’s what Cotts was. So no one not named Cotts really cared when he succumbed to injuries and vanished from the majors for four full years. Cotts had Tommy John surgery in July of 2009, followed by surgery to repair a torn hip labrum in June of 2010 and multiple subsequent surgeries to clean up infections in the area. He missed all of 2010 and 2011. In February of 2012, the Rangers offered him a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training, and when they saw that he was sitting 91-94 with his fastball, they moved him to big-league camp, where he spent most of the spring. It looked for a time like he might make the Opening Day roster. Instead, he strained his lat, which kept him out until June. When he returned to pitch for Triple-A Round Rock, his velo was down, and he posted a 4.55 ERA in 25 games, showing just enough for Texas to offer him another no-commitment minor-league deal. Ken Rosenthal has additional details on Cotts' comeback saga here.
That takes us up to 2013. Cotts stayed healthy this spring, but he got hit often, allowing 16 hits and five runs in 7 1/3 innings. He was reassigned to Round Rock, and in his third game there, he gave up two walks, two hits, and three runs (two earned) in 2/3 of an inning. And that’s where the old Cotts ends and the new Cotts becomes interesting.
Shortly after that ugly outing, the Round Rock Express traveled to New Orleans to play the Zephyrs, the Marlins’ PCL affiliate. At some point during that series, which took place from April 12th-15th, Cotts—no doubt willing to try anything after a lousy start to his latest attempt to make it back to the majors—talked to Round Rock pitching coach Brad Holman about making a mechanical adjustment. According to Jason Cole, who covers the Rangers for Lone Star Dugout (in addition to writing for BP), Holman, who pitched briefly for Seattle in 1993, is a “mechanical wizard” who’s on the short list of future big-league pitching coach candidates. He’s already respected enough that a word from him was enough to convince Josh Daniels to try Josh Lindblom as a starter this season, and he’s received credit for mechanical fixes he applied to Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm. Cole spoke to Holman this past Sunday, two days before Cotts was called up to Texas. Here’s Holman recalling how Cotts’ new mechanics came to be:
According to Halman, the correction to Cotts’ timing has paid dividends in his delivery, and it’s also improved his stuff:
So that’s the portion of the story from before Cotts acquired his superpowers, plus the origin story that transformed him into something more than a mild-mannered reliever. That means it’s time for the payoff, in which our hero uses his newfound abilities to lay waste to the league. I wouldn’t blame you for having looked up the stats and spoiled it yourself.
Since the start of that series against the Zephyrs, Cotts has pitched 12 games and 19 1/3 innings for Round Rock, plus another two games and three innings for the Rangers over the past two days. Here’s what his combined stats over that period look like:
Cotts hasn’t been scored upon since April 10th, before his mechanics were altered. He’s struck out 44.6 percent of the batters he’s faced, slightly higher than the rate at which Aroldis Chapman punched out opponents last season, and he’s combined that with the walk rate of 2010 Cliff Lee. You’re probably looking at that hit rate and assuming, as I did, that Cotts has had some luck on balls in play. Actually, he has a .333 BABIP over that span. And his seasonal line against lefties, who used to hit him hard? Thirty-five batters faced, 22 strikeouts, zero hits allowed.
You probably want to see what the new Cotts looks like. Here he is in the sixth inning on Wednesday, coming in against Oakland with no outs and men on first and second and striking out the side. (He said after the game that he was just trying to get grounders; evidently he can’t help but miss bats.)
I don’t have Holman here to illustrate Cotts’ adjustments with images, but I did ask Doug Thorburn to do his thing. Here's what he said:
Video of Cotts’ pre-injury, pre-current mechanics appearances in the majors is scarce. We do have this image from 2009, which reveals Cotts’ “head out in front” syndrome, according to Doug, and this pitch from 2008, in which Doug thought his balance looked a little better:
We also have a couple of easily available pitches from his time in big-league camp last spring, in which Doug felt that Cotts’ lack of mechanical timing was in full effect:
And then there’s the footage from the April 10th game against Iowa, Cotts’ last outing before his momentous mechanical tune-up. The images from milb.tv are grainy, and the angles aren’t great, but they might still be helpful in pinpointing where Cotts had gone wrong and has since gone right. This is a three-pitch sequence that ended in a homer, with stills taken at the point of pitch release. The last two images, Doug says, “are consecutive frames, just prior to and just following release point." He thinks "these two pics side-by-side probably show the ‘out in front’ phenomenon most clearly.”
All in all, Doug deemed the visual evidence of a mechanical change “relatively striking.” PITCHf/x can’t tell us as much, since we have only 29 big-league pitches to study (28 of which were classified by Brooks Baseball as four-seam fastballs or sliders). Cotts’ four-seam velocity is a healthy 92.2 miles per hour, up a couple ticks from his pre-TJ innings in 2009 and about equal to his 2008 average. Of course, that velo wouldn’t reflect any extra perceived velocity Cotts could be getting from a deeper release point, nor would it confirm the improved command that should stem from his increased mechanical consistency. And If Brooks is to be believed, we’ve seen only one of the cutters that Holman complimented, without any changeups.
Clearly, this ain’t your mama’s middle reliever. Of course, we shouldn’t count on Cotts to sustain his recent run of success. Reinventions aren't supposed to be this simple, and 33-year-olds who are almost out of baseball are rarely a tweak away from startling success. Most of Cotts’ dominance has come against Triple-A hitters, albeit in a league that averages over five runs scored per game. And he hasn’t had a fully healthy season since 2008. Killer Cotts could disappear as quickly as he materialized.
But the odds of a guy like Cotts going on a run like the one he’s been on lately without any corresponding improvement to his process are extremely slim. This is a degree of dominance we never saw from him in his younger, healthier days. Cotts' upside is as a setup man, so it’s not as if his sudden emergence as a late-inning option is likely to alter the course of the season. But it's altered the course of his season, and it's made ours that much more interesting. It's not as if we need further confirmation that baseball is tough to predict. But we'll be keeping a close eye on Cotts.