Insider: Cobb Shines, But Rays Drop Series

Coming into the first interleague series of the 2012 season, the Tampa Bay Rays had to feel good about having their top two pitchers going in the three-game set with the Atlanta Braves. James Shields started game one of the series while David Price was the starter in Sunday’s rubber match. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, their left/right duo took a pair of losses as the Braves left Tropicana Field with a meatloaf win. Standing in the way of an Atlanta sweep was 24-year-old Alex Cobb, who made his season debut on Saturday.

When Jeff Niemann went down with injury, I said the drop-off from Niemann to Cobb would be minimal if any difference at all. With seven strong innings against a talented Braves lineup, it looks like the Rays will be just fine with a new fifth starter.

Things did not start well for Cobb on Saturday. He allowed four hits and a walk to the first seven batters he faced and was down 2-0 after the second inning. That said, the right-hander rebounded in dominant fashion. “He had a couple tough innings and had to fight through some moments” said Rays’ manager Joe Maddon. “We keep talking about his make-up and that’s what permits him to do these types of things. That’s a really good lineup. They are pretty firm. That’s a pretty good lineup up and down. He kept
making good pitches” he added.

When speaking of Cobb in the past, I noted his ability to induce groundballs and generate whiffs with his changeup. In his first start of the season, he threw a whopping 46 changeups. The Atlanta offense swung at 29 of those changeups, coming up empty nine times. In total, the off-speed pitch was responsible for 13 combined outs – including four of his six strikeouts.

In addition to the six punchouts, Cobb was able to limit the damage done by keeping the ball on the ground. Pounding the lower portion of the strike zone with his fastball and changeup, he induced 11 groundball outs which included a pair of double plays. Of those 11 groundouts, eighth of them came on mid-80s changeups.

Cobb located the bulk of his changeups arm side and down. This means he worked low and away against lefties while going low and inside against right-handers. Fellow changeup artist James Shields uses his off-speed pitch in a very similar manner.

It would be unfair to expect seven innings of two-run ball from Cobb every time out. While the final line may vary, Cobb’s sound process should continue to produce favorable results. Armed with a devastating changeup, a good enough fastball, and a decent curveball, he has the arsenal to navigate through major-league lineups as they flip two or three times in a given start. When he’s not generating whiffs with his off-speed pitch, he can limit the number of extra-base hits allowed by inducing an above-average number of groundballs. And despite his youth, he possesses a pitching maturity that extends well beyond his age.

Cobb’s next start will come against the Boston Red Sox in Fenway park. With the short porch in right field and the towering Green Monster in left, his ability to keep the ball on the ground will be key. Facing notable left-handed sluggers like Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz, his changeup will also be important to any success he may have.

The weekend may have ended in disappointment for the Rays, but Alex Cobb was certainly a bright spot and could continue to be one going forward.