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May 23, 2013

Overthinking It

The Incredible New Neal Cotts

by Ben Lindbergh


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:

I think there was a mechanical adjustment––we were in New Orleans when we made it. Neal was coming out, and I try to get the relievers on the mound every third day. He kept showing up early. I watched him this spring, and I noticed the erraticism of the release. He was having a tough time repeating his delivery.

We had a real long conversation in New Orleans and talked about the delivery and what I believed to be an essential timing mechanism in his delivery. It’s a matter of synching his head with his throwing hand. He has always had that bent front knee. And by the time he landed, it was really forward and his arm was behind him and playing catch up. And he was erratic as a result.

We had that talk in New Orleans, and Neal started working on it. On his own, he has really transformed himself into a repeatable delivery. We haven’t had a conversation since that time in New Orleans. He took it and ran with it. Being a veteran like he is, he’s able to retain that information.

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Related Content:  Pitching,  Rangers,  Mechanics,  Neal Cotts

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Premium Article On the Beat: The Optim... (05/23)
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Premium Article Overthinking It: Bette... (05/22)
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Overthinking It: The L... (05/24)
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Premium Article Eyewitness Accounts: M... (05/23)

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