When it comes to the starting rotation, there’s no question the Orioles are still lacking in talent. John Means’ ascension in 2019 was legitimately impressive, but even if he is for real, the O’s will need a whole lot more than him to piece together even a halfway decent group of starters.
While Dylan Bundy continues to evolve into something resembling a reliable back-end starter, the O’s are hoping Alex Cobb can stay healthy and return to form — maybe even the form that he showed in the second half of 2018.
Not much of the Cobb signing has gone according to plan. Inked to a four-year, $57 million deal about a week before the season started in 2018 (unsurprisingly with a significant chunk of deferred money), he was supposed to be the final piece of Dan Duquette’s last-ditch attempt to construct a playoff contender. Instead, Cobb allowed 20 combined runs in his first three starts and was terrible in the first half (6.41 ERA, 5.13 FIP in 92.2 innings). The O’s went on to finish with a horrendous 47-115 record and made the Dark Ages Orioles look competent in comparison.
For as bad as Cobb looked in that first half, though, he reversed course in a major way in the second half:
First half: 6.41 ERA, 5.13 FIP, .378 wOBA, .349 xwOBA, 88.4 avg. exit velocity, 12.6 launch angle
Second half: 2.56 ERA, 4.28 FIP, .287 wOBA, .322 xwOBA, 87.9 avg. exit velocity, 8.8 launch angle
Cobb induced weaker contact, kept the ball in the ballpark more (1.65 HR/9 to 1.06) and struck out slightly more batters (15.0 K% to 16.2). He also stayed out of the middle of the plate by locating less like this:
… and more like this:
A big part of that improved location was Cobb rediscovering the feel for his vaunted split-change, “The Thing.” After throwing the pitch 21.1 percent of the time in the first half, his usage jumped to 35.2 percent in the second half. As the season went along, he steadily induced more whiffs and grounders with the pitch before things tailed off a bit in September as he dealt with a blister that cut short his season.
During his successful run in the second half, Cobb explained to Jon Meoli of The Baltimore Sun that his confidence in the pitch was clearly growing: “There’s definitely signs of it. I think the biggest thing is when I don’t execute it perfectly. Before, it was getting hit for some big damage — home runs, doubles. There was some real damage being caused by it, so I shied away from it. Now, when I don’t execute it perfectly, it’s still staying in the ballpark. It’s a lot of times getting hit on the ground. It’s still a quality pitch, even when it’s not executed perfectly. And when it is executed well, I’m getting swings and misses on it. That’s the biggest difference.”
Despite the nagging blister, the hope was that Cobb had found something and, combined with a normal offseason and spring training, he would be able to hit the ground running in 2019. Injuries, however, prevented that from happening. Cobb missed time in the early season with groin and lower back injuries before it was eventually announced that he needed season-ending hip surgery. Limited by those injuries, Cobb managed just three starts and 12-plus innings while putting up an ERA near 11.00.
Injuries were already a major concern before Cobb joined the Orioles. Most notably, he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015, but he battled an assortment of afflictions during his tenure with the Rays (concussion, oblique strain, turf toe, etc.). Cobb has never thrown 180 innings in a season, and he’s only thrown more than 150 three times, with one of those times coming in 2018. The O’s knew about his injury history before signing him — of course they did, if you know anything about the Orioles and their history with physicals — but it’s still frustrating that 1.5 of Cobb’s two O’s seasons seem like lost ones.
And yet, it’s too early to close the book on Cobb. He just turned 32 years old, and while he missed all of 2019, his arm and elbow appear to be fine. His success isn’t tied to velocity, but he did see a small uptick with his fastball in 2018 and briefly in 2019.
Really, though, it’s about the split-change. Can Cobb regain that mojo from the second half of 2018? Can he do this regularly in 2020?
Cobb bouncing back and staying healthy won’t make a huge difference for the O’s in 2020. They’re going to be bad once again. But his reawakening would have the benefit of making them a bit more competitive and somewhat more watchable.
It could also, in the best-case scenario, entice another team to take a chance on Cobb, the only player other than Chris Davis on the O’s roster who’s owed guaranteed money. Even then, any deal would mostly be a salary dump, so there isn’t much to get excited about there unless you’re a member of the O’s front office. But still … Cobb being decent is better than the alternative.
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