Alex Cobb Follows The Shields’ Blueprint

Alex Cobb

Tommy Rancel is a writer for ESPN Sweetspot Network and He has also written for Bloomberg Sports, FanGraphs, and ESPN Florida. You can follow him on Twitter@TRancel.

Note: This analysis is from September 23rd. With Alex Cobb pitching for the Rays tonight, it provides perspective to what he brings to the mound.

For nearly seven seasons, James Shields anchored the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation without a frontline fastball. In lieu of a premium heater, Shields mixed speeds, changed eye levels, and varied his usage by adopting the philosophy of pitching backwards. He also kept a good pace, and pounded the strike zone early in counts so he could expand the zone later.

Peter Gammons: Alex Cobb Shining for the Rays

Although Shields is now in Kansas City, his style of pitching is still emulated in Tampa Bay. Hidden in the shadows of higher profile arms like David Price, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer, Alex Cobb has been a steady hand in the Rays’ rotation. Save for a freak accident (line drive to the head) that wiped out most of his summer, the 25-year-old, in many ways, has taken up post left by Shields. And he does it in similar fashion.

The Shields/Cobb comparison has been made before. The right-handed duo can get by without plus fastballs because they possess plus-plus off-speed pitches and savvy that reaches beyond their years. Like Shields, Cobb frequently pitches backwards, adjusts eye levels, and modifies speeds nearly pitch by pitch.

Top 5 AL Ground Ball Rates
P PA Grnd%
Justin Masterson (CLE) 2,952 789 55.9%
Doug Fister (DET) 3,229 850 55.3%
Alex Cobb (TB) 2,125 554 55.0%
Rick Porcello (DET) 2,814 728 52.7%
Joe Saunders (SEA) 3,110 820 51.5%

Though the overall recipes and results are similar, Cobb cooks a bit differently. In terms of fastballs, Cobb uses a heavier version of the heater to rack up groundballs in bunches. He also throws his changeup with a split-finger grip. That said, his curveball – typically a knuckle version – was picked up from the elder Shields.

Cobb uses all of his pitches with regularity. None of the three pitches is used more than 45 percent of the time while no pitch is used less than 20 percent. The fastball and curveball are used early in the plate appearance with the changeup typically used as the knockout. Each offering is thrown for strikes led by off-speed pitches. Though there is just about 11 mph of velocity separation from heater to hook, all three pitches have at least five mph of dissociation. The ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes, and in any count, likely enhances the modest amount of velocity segregation to the opposition.

In terms of location, Cobb doesn’t shy away from any part of the zone. He throws his fastball on both corners. He can also elevate or bury it as needed. The curveball is typically thrown to his glove-side while the off-speed is concentrated arm-side and down.


2013 Pitch Locations: Fastballs vs. RHBs

2013 Pitch Locations: Fastballs vs. RHBs

2013 Pitch Locations: Fastballs vs. LHBs

2013 Pitch Locations: Fastballs vs. LHBs

Recently, I spoke with a pair of former major-leaguers about changing speeds and eye levels. Mike LaValliere spent more than a decade catching in the big leagues with four teams (Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Chicago White Sox), winning a gold glove in 1987. Left-hander Eric Knott pitched for the Montreal Expos and Arizona Diamondbacks. He also spent time in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers’ organizations as well as playing internationally.

Each player stressed the importance of changing speeds with Knott putting extra emphasis on eye levels. LaValliere said eye level was a minor determining factor in getting hitters out, noting that Zane Smith was successful relying on sinkers while Tom Browning relied on high fastballs. Meanwhile, he also said “I like the mix between a high four-seamer and a good overhand 12-6 curveball.”

For Knott, changing eye levels was a big part of the development process. Speaking about his junior college coach, he said varying eye levels was drilled into him. “He always used to say something about the mind’s eye not being able to erase what it sees in the short term” said Knott of his former coach. “He always preached changing eye level and delivering pitches within 12-18 seconds after the last pitch was delivered because the brain couldn’t eliminate what is processed in the seconds before.”

Knott also mentioned that when you do not change levels you eliminate the guessing game for the hitter and allow them to focus on one piece of the zone. “Most importantly,” he said “releasing a fastball up in the zone shows the hitter something released from the same arm slot and release point as an off-speed pitch that ends up down in the zone.” He continued “once a hitter sees/thinks fastball, he will speed up his decision to swing or not. If he sees fastball and commits early on a breaking ball or changeup the batter is most likely to swing and miss or hit the ball weakly.”

On Saturday, Cobb did a masterful job of putting most of these principles into motion. He adjusted speeds and switched locations. He threw first-pitch curveballs and 0-2 fastballs above the belt. He pounded the zone with strikes and expanded when the time called for it. The sum of all these parts was a masterful eight-plus inning effort against the Baltimore Orioles. He allowed one run on five hits (the run was the result of a misplayed flyball that was ruled a hit) while striking out 12 and walking just two.

Perhaps no group of plate appearances better exemplify how Cobb operates than his encounters with current American League home-run king Chris Davis. Officially, Davis went 1-4 with a triple; however, the hit came on a routine flyball lost in the Tropicana Field roof by David DeJesus. Prior to that he was 0-3 with a pair of groundouts and a called strikeout. Cobb threw Davis 15 total pitches: three fastballs, six changeups, six curveballs.

During their first plate appearance, Cobb jumped ahead 0-2 with a changeup (86 mph away) and a curveball (79 mph over the plate). Davis took a border line curve (79 mph low-and-away) for ball one before grounding out on a changeup (86 mph low-and-away).

Davis worked ahead 2-0 in their second battle after taking a curveball (77 mph high-and-away) and a fastball (91 mph inside) out of the zone. He grounded out on the third pitch; another 86-mph changeup on the outer half of the plate and low.

In the sixth inning, Cobb started Davis with a called-strike curveball (79 mph) that straddled the outside corner. Davis fell behind two strikes after fouling off another pitch on the outer half. This one a mid-80s changeup. In what is a prime example of how mixing speeds and eye levels can knock a hitter off-balance, Davis took an inner 92-mph at the letters on the next pitch for the called strike three.

Speaking about Cobb’s performance, O’s outfielder Nate McLouth said “he’s pretty much unhittable. He can – with that split-finger – get so much weak contact, and he’s got pitches to put you away with so you go up there kind of wanting to get him early. But the ball moves so much it’s hard to make good contact. Kind of reminded me of that game [James] Shields pitched against us here last year.”

Shields now leads a team that is among the handful of rivals chasing Tampa Bay for a spot in the post-season. Meanwhile his former club, the Rays, remained in control of the AL Wildcard thanks to Alex Cobb executing a similar game-plan as their former ace.