You know all about xFIP, because you read FanGraphs, and it’s a distinctly FanGraphs-y statistic. You don’t quite know how you feel about it. Some pitchers demonstrate an ability to suppress runs more than one would expect. Some pitchers appear to be unusually homer-prone. Lots has been written about the handful of apparent exceptions, but xFIP isn’t trash, as some might suggest. Most generally, it does a good job of separating the good pitchers from the bad ones. Good pitchers get strikeouts, limit walks, and don’t allow homers. Most pitchers with weird-looking home-run rates will regress. One wants to argue with xFIP, but it isn’t easy, except on the margins. It contains a lot of truth.
This year, 56 American League starters have thrown at least 50 innings. Felix Hernandez leads with 90.2; we find Felix Doubront at 50, exactly. Here are the top four, by xFIP:
There’s nothing too entirely shocking, although Sanchez has been a bit of a surprise. Everyone knew he was good; few expected him to be great. But the talent was always obvious. Now, nobody ever presents a top-four list. Typically, you’ll see top-five lists, and who do you suspect would be fifth on this list? Who’s the guy right behind Scherzer? Hint: it isn’t teammate Justin Verlander. It isn’t Hisashi Iwakuma, or Chris Sale, or breakthrough starter Rick Porcello. It’s a guy named Alex Cobb, and he pitches for the Rays, and he’s amazing, and you hardly know anything about him.
Probably. Rays fans know everything about him. Rays fans are rabid, at least on the Internet, and they’re particularly knowledgeable, at least on the Internet. But not all baseball fans are Rays fans — the overwhelming majority are not! — and Cobb has been flying way under the radar. When people think of Rays starters, they think first of David Price. Then it’s Matt Moore, then it’s probably Jeremy Hellickson. Cobb is one of those guys who wasn’t supposed to be good enough to replace James Shields. So far, he’s been just as effective.
If you go back to the winter, the Royals acquired Shields because they thought he could turn them into a contender. Shields was perceived to be a major piece. The Rays, in return, were given no one on the major-league roster, so you’d think the Rays would’ve suffered. They’re presently in the thick of the race, again, and Cobb is a big reason why. Price is hurt, Hellickson has been particularly ineffective, and Cobb has been one of the best starters in baseball.
Dave just wrote about Matt Carpenter, and how he’s turning into a star out of nowhere. This, in a way, is a coincidental companion piece, because Cobb was drafted in 2006, and he never cracked the Baseball America Rays top-10 prospect lists. Cobb, if he made it, was going to be someone you put at the back of the rotation, the kind of guy who’d bounce around a lot between Triple-A and the majors, but today he’s the best starting pitcher on his team, and his team has last year’s Cy Young winner on it.
What do the best starting pitchers do? This is the xFIP argument again. And we’ve already covered that, but Cobb has 69 strikeouts and 17 walks in 75 innings. More, nearly three-fifths of balls in play are grounders, and Cobb’s able to pitch well against both lefties and righties alike. We could talk about the fact that he’s allowed nine dingers, and we could try to make a whole bunch out of that, but, probably, it’s a blip. And there are indications that we should’ve seen Cobb coming, to some extent. Over last year’s final two months, he had 57 strikeouts and 17 walks in 67 innings. Cobb hasn’t stopped growing, following a path somewhat similar to that of Doug Fister.
What might’ve clicked for Cobb down the stretch a season ago? He changed his curveball, on advice from Shields and Wade Davis, and over the year he grew more comfortable with it. He started throwing it more often, and he started throwing it harder, and if we want to believe in that narrative then things came together over the last several weeks. That’s carried over into 2013, as Cobb is throwing his offspeed stuff a lot, and as he’s gained about a tick or two across the board.
Cobb’s velocity is up, and while he throws a fastball, he doesn’t throw it that much. This year, just under 47% of his pitches have been fastballs, against a starter average of about 62%. Cobb loves his curve, and he loves his splitter, so much that he throws it more than anyone else. He also throws his split more than anyone else throws his changeup. They’re similar pitches in flight, if less so in grip, and Cobb’s split is spectacular and the whole key to his success.
For an idea of what Cobb’s able to do with his split, consider: this year, 38% of his splitters have wound up in the strike zone. Batters have swung at 70% of his splitters overall. By developing a better curve, Cobb takes some of the focus away from his split, which allows his split to be all the more successful. This is what that thing looks like against perhaps the greatest hitter in the world:
That’s from Wednesday, when Cobb faced the Tigers and controlled them, despite the Tigers having arguably baseball’s best offense. Said Torii Hunter:
Hunter said he had plenty of problems trying to get his bat on Cobb’s changeup.
“My at-bats, he threw at least four or five of them,” he said. “You see it up and then when you swing, it drops down. You’re like, ‘What is this, Bugs Bunny pitching?’ He had good stuff. I hate tipping my cap, but you have to.”
Said Torii Hunter in a similar quote?
“It felt like Bugs Bunny was pitching,” Tigers rightfielder Torii Hunter said. “When you swing, the ball just drops out of the zone. It’s like it didn’t want to get hit.”
There’s a .gif that went kind of viral after the game. It’s another of Cobb vs. Miguel Cabrera, and I’ll just put it below:
That’s Cabrera fouling off a two-strike curve, and then mouthing “wow,” or something. The fun interpretation is that Cabrera was impressed. The less-fun interpretation is that Cabrera thought he should have killed that pitch. But let’s go with the former, because we’re building us a Cobb-friendly narrative. Miguel Cabrera just won the MVP and the Triple Crown and he’s hitting the crap out of the ball. Every ball. Here, Cabrera wasn’t just impressed by a Cobb pitch; he made sure that Cobb knew it. He made damn sure.
Cabrera ultimately lined out, because he’s Miguel Cabrera and he can more or less do what he wants. But that might be the .gif that gets Alex Cobb more broad recognition. If all eyes are on Cabrera, and if Cabrera gives Cobb his seal of approval, then it follows that Cobb should be more appreciated. It follows that Cobb should at least be more known. He’s an unknown starter pitching like the best in what seems to be a sustainable way.
Cobb does everything you want a starting pitcher to do, and while his contact rate isn’t particularly outstanding, the same could be said of Cliff Lee. Cobb still gets his strikeouts because he stays in and around the zone and seldom falls behind. Remember that this is the guy who, a few weeks ago, struck out 13 of 23 Padres batters, which isn’t something a guy can pull off if he doesn’t have sometimes unhittable stuff. It’s Price who has the hardware, and the name value, and the trade rumors. It’s Moore who’s thought to be the staff phenom. It’s Hellickson who’s been written about for his ability to suppress hits and runs. But it’s Cobb who’s pitching the best. Maybe the lesson is that we don’t sufficiently appreciate pitchers with dynamite changeups or splitters. Maybe the lesson is that pitchers are just hard to predict. Here’s a simpler, more specific lesson: Alex Cobb is really good. You should know about him.