One of baseball's best pitchers in the second half, Alex Cobb is one of a handful of players poised to turn a strong 2014 finish into a brilliant 2015.
The Thing was born on an otherwise unremarkable day in 2008 to a 20-year-old father who was, at the time, similarly unremarkable. Alex Cobb was a fourth-round pick by the Rays in 2006 out of Florida's Vero Beach High, but he had not particularly distinguished himself during his first two seasons in the lowest reaches of minor league baseball. He had compiled a 5-6 record with a 3.70 ERA, and he had done so throwing almost exclusively fastballs and curveballs. He was still searching for a third pitch that might propel him to the big leagues when Bill Maloney, his pitching coach with the Low-A Columbus (Ga.) Catfish, suggested he try a split-fingered grip. Cobb had experimented with splitters in high school, but the Rays had discouraged him from doing so as a pro, for fear of taxing his elbow. Now, though, Cobb was in his third season, and he had nothing to lose.
"I threw one pitch with it," Cobb said, "and it had that sharp, downward movement that I was looking for." It was a strange pitch — not exactly a split-fingered fastball, but not really a changeup, either. It was, as his teammates came to call it, "the Thing." It was also exactly what Cobb had been looking for, and what, six years later, has made him the owner of the majors' most significant second-half breakthrough performance.
The Rays have been disappointingly irrelevant this season, particularly after the David Price sweepstakes came to its mildly thudding conclusion, and so you can be forgiven if you haven't noticed Cobb's recent dominance. Entering his most recent outing, last Thursday night against the Yankees, the 26-year-old's ERA since the All Star Game was 1.27, which was not only the lowest among any of the league's starters, but also the lowest by a long shot (the Indians' Corey Kluber was second, at 1.49). Cobb hadn't allowed more than two earned runs in any of his ten post-break starts, and allowed no runs at all in four of them.
Cobb's second-half ERA dropped even further last Thursday, to the league-best 1.26 at which it currently stands (Clayton Kershaw is now second, at 1.62), after an outing that might have finally earned him some attention had the Rays' bullpen not blown a game in which he'd carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Cobb professes not to mind his low profile. "Maybe I can sneak into some teams," he said. "I feel like when guys are expecting top-of-the-rotation guys, they tend to sharpen up a little bit. I like flying under the radar."
One way in which the righthanded Cobb produces persistent blips is through his unorthodox windup, during which he appears to kick his left leg straight at home plate before swinging it to the side. That hesitation undoubtedly helps to deceive hitters, though the idea was simply to find something that was effectively repeatable, which he did last season. "I thought about trying it before my bullpen one day to see how it affected my pitches," he said. "I went out there and it worked really well, and before you know it, you have a goofy-looking windup."
More baffling, of course, is the Thing. Cobb's fastball, which sits at 91 miles per hour, and his curve are relatively ordinary. The Thing, which comes in at 87 before diving toward the plate, generating both strikeouts (8.4 per nine innings) and grounders (at a 56.1 percent clip, third-highest in the majors), is anything but. FanGraphs classifies it as a changeup and measures it as the second-most valuable such pitch in the game this season, after only Felix Hernandez's.
Cobb's seasonal ERA is now 2.75, and if not for a strained left oblique that put him on the disabled list for 39 days early in the year, he might be mentioned along with King Felix in debates about this year's AL Cy Young award. The problem wasn't just the missed time. After he returned, it took Cobb about a month to rediscover his unconventional windup. "When I came back, I just didn't feel comfortable on the mound mechanically," he said. "I felt disoriented out there." He yielded six runs or more in three of his first seven post-injury starts.
For Cobb, this has been the second season in a row disrupted by injury. Last year, he had a 3.01 ERA on June 15 when a line drive off the bat of the Royals' Eric Hosmer struck him in the head. The resulting concussion put him on the DL for two months. On the night of his near no-hitter last Thursday, Cobb watched Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins' MVP candidate, sustain a similar injury when he took a fastball to the face. "I realized how hard it is for people to watch something like that," he said. "It's been frustrating, for sure, to miss three months between this year and last year, and there have been a lot of guys that have had that type of injury that have had trouble keeping it out of their minds once they came back. I'm lucky in that when I'm on the mound, I'm not thinking about it."
In fact, Cobb's focus is on the present as well as a future that, despite the departure of Price and the recent announcement by owner Stuart Sternberg that this year's franchise-record $80 million payroll will be chopped, remains bright for the Rays. That is thanks in large measure to a deep rotation that, like Cobb, is young, talented and cheap (Cobb is making about $517,000 this year). Tampa Bay's collective second-half ERA is 2.85, behind only Seattle's 2.19, and next year's rotation will feature Jeremy Hellickson (who is 27), Chris Archer (26), Drew Smyly (25) and Jake Odorizzi (25), with Alex Colome (25), Nate Karns (26) and the currently injured Matt Moore (25) behind them.
"I'm proud of the way the staff was able to handle the departure of David, not really missing a beat with all eyes on us," Cobb said. "A lot of critics were ready to pull the trigger and say David's leaving was detrimental to the staff, and I'm just very pleased with the way guys have carried out their business. It really speaks volumes to what David and guys like James Shields were able to do to help this rotation grow. This organization's seen this coming for a long time, and has seen the potential it has in its young starters. It's what they've relied on for their entire existence, since they've been good. It's been all flying colors as of right now."
Despite this year's 74-78 record, the Rays' renaissance isn't nearly over. As the second half suggests, its next phase will be led by Cobb — and, of course, by the Thing.
Along with Cobb, here are five other players whose second-half breakthroughs might portend even better things to come.
We wrote about the 27-year-old Carter's breakout three weeks ago, and he has kept it up since then, batting .297 and adding four homers to a season total that now stands at 36. He even had a 12-game hitting streak between Aug. 31 and Sept. 14. While he still strikes out a lot — his 167 punchouts are seventh in the big leagues — he seems to have finally figured out a way to counterbalance his whiffs with power.
The long-haired 26-year-old gained some national attention last Monday by striking out the first eight Marlins he faced, thereby tying a modern-day major league record. In truth, though, he has been excellent throughout a second half in which he's gone 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP. He has in the process likely pulled ahead of the Reds' Billy Hamilton in the NL Rookie of the Year race and has given the Mets a fourth locked-in member — behind Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard — of what should be one of the league's best young rotations next year.
The Pirates' offense is usually thought of as starting and ending with Andrew McCutchen, but it has recently been much deeper than that. Among players who have had at least 125 plate appearances since the All-Star break, five of the majors' top 25 OPS leaders are Bucs, and none of them is McCutchen. They include Josh Harrison, Neil Walker, Travis Snider and Russell Martin. But it's the 25-year-old Marte, though, who leads not just the Pirates but also everyone in the category, at 1.017, having added power (18 extra-base hits) to his speed- and defense-based game.
The Canadian southpaw missed nearly four months of the season with a strained shoulder, but he's been sensational since returning to Seattle's rotation on Aug. 2. The grounder-inducing Paxton hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in any of his eight starts, in which he's gone 4-2 with a 1.72 ERA. The 25-year-old has been everything the Mariners thought Taijuan Walker might be (and might yet become), and has helped keep them in the wild-card race.
Many believed that Garrett Richards' catastrophic knee injury suffered on Aug. 20 would irreparably damage the Angels' season, especially as their rotation seemed painfully thin. Since then, though, they turned a 1 1/2-game lead in the AL West to an 11-game, all but division-clinching one, and the 27-year-old Shoemaker — who had an ERA of 4.52 in his seven minor league seasons — has been a central reason why. Shoemaker's nine second-half wins (against two losses) lead baseball, and he's also got a 1.87 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP, in large measure thanks to his own devastating splitter/change. Call it the Other Thing.