Raising Questions

For the Phillies, is Alex Cobb worth it?

Photo by Keith Allison

It seems destined that the Phillies will add at least one starting pitcher for 2018. While we’ve heard quite a few names associated with the Phils, perhaps no pitcher has been more rumored to be targeted by the club than Alex Cobb, a free agent who has spent his career with the Tampa Bay Rays.

So let’s talk about this.

First, here’s what we know about Cobb and the market: The Cubs reportedly offered him a three-year, $42 million contract, and Cobb declined. Apparently Cobb is seeking $20 million per season. There are whispers he’d accept something like four years and $70 million, so we’re talking one more year and an average annual value of $17.5 million.

Now let’s put the Phillies in this discussion, because plenty people still believe they’ll end up with Cobb. We know the Phils don’t mind spending right now, if they believe the value is worth the risk. So before we talk money, is Cobb worth the risk?

Cobb missed all of 2015 and most of ’16 with a UCL tear, leading to Tommy John surgery. So let’s look at his standard rate numbers from 2012-’14 and then ’16-’17:

  • 2012 – 136.1 IP, 7.00 K/9, 2.64 BB/9, 0.73 HR/9, 58.8 GB%
  • 2013 – 143.1 IP, 8.41 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, 0.82 HR/9, 55.8 GB%
  • 2014 – 166.1 IP, 8.06 K/9, 2.54 BB/9, 0.60 HR/9, 56.2 GB%
  • 2015 – N/A
  • 2016 – 22 IP, 6.55 K/9, 2.86 BB/9, 2.05 HR/9, 52.5 GB%
  • 2017 – 179.1 IP, 6.42 K/9, 2.21 BB/9, 1.10 HR/9, 4.8 GB%

It’s hard to even consider 2016, but here, Cobb’s post-Tommy John numbers are showing a different pitcher than pre-Tommy John Cobb. The strikeout numbers have dropped off while the fly-ball rate, and consequently the home run rate, has increased. The walk rate has seemed to drop, however, which is good. Ultimately, it seems as if Cobb is pitching to contact more.

Let’s look at Cobb’s arsenal. Between 2012 and ’14 he threw the fastball about 43 percent of the time. But he ramped that up to 51.5 percent last year. He also threw the curveball a lot more – from 2012-’14 he tossed it about 20 percent of the time, but last year, 34.1 percent. He dramatically decreased the usage of his most distinctive pitch, the splitter (also considered a changeup or split-change) from an average of 35 percent to 14.4 percent.

This is well known. Analysts have written about the decrease of the splitter usage. This Beyond the Box Score piece does a great job explaining what happened – basically, since Tommy John he’s relied less on it because he said it takes longer to get a feel for it. It doesn’t drop like it used to, either, which is one reason that fly-ball rate is higher.

That said, the same Beyond the Box Score piece found his curve was picking up the slack. Despite the curve being hit relatively hard, most hitters were getting under it too much, limiting home run damage.

So despite Cobb nearly becoming a two-pitch pitcher in 2017, he was still quite effective.

But here’s the deal. Citizens Bank Park had the highest home run factor in baseball in 2017, its 1.409 (1.4 times more likely to generate home runs than the average park) far above even second place Yankee Stadium (1.279). Cobb’s Tropicana Field had a 0.888 home run factor, 22nd in baseball.

Cobb of course had to pitch in Yankee Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards (1.236), but Fenway (0.824) and Rogers (0.923) have low home run factors. In the NL East he’d also pitch more often at relatively poor home run parks: SunTrust (0.951), Marlins (0.835) and Citi (0.798). Even with those lower numbers, let’s be real: Cobb will be tested far more often to keep the ball in the yard in Philadelphia.

That’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, because we can’t look at just one consequence of Cobb’s new approach. But it does raise a major question that the Phils – more than other teams – have to take seriously: Can Cobb’s splitter return to being at least a plus pitch?

A two-pitch pitcher (essentially) – even one who skillfully uses that second pitch – is a big risk for $18-$20 million per year. It’s a big risk for three or more years. But while some teams (like the Cubs) are more suited to take the risk, the Phillies – with a park that allows more home runs, plus more questions about the rotation and other areas – may not be best. You could definitely pencil him in as a No. 4 quality starter, maybe a No. 3, but as a No. 2? Can’t do that for three to four years.

So is it worth it for the Phils to get Cobb for three years and $60 million, or four years and around $75 million? There’s more risk than perceived with Cobb.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Mike Fassano

    January 7, 2018 at 4:04 pm

    I’m not crazy about any of the FA’s or Duffy. Pursue the trade route or play the cards you already have.

  2. Craig Glessner

    January 7, 2018 at 5:56 pm

    This is what is turning fans off of professional sports. If a mediocre player gets paid $20 million a year guess why it costs so much to go to the ballpark. If he wins 20 games in a year (not gonna happen) he’d get a million per win seriously does this bother anybody else. GO PHILLIES. Just say no to mediocrity

    • schmenkman

      January 8, 2018 at 5:27 pm

      No, it doesn’t bother me.

      – That’s the price that the free market system has determined they are worth, through supply and demand.

      – Players get relatively very little their first three years, then gradually climb through arbitration, and finally if they are good enough to become attractive free agents, then they finally get their big pay day. And that doesn’t even cover the years spent in the minors making less than minimum wage.

      – It’s entertainment. I don’t blame other talented people for what they make (actors, musicians, tennis players, etc.), and I don’t blame athletes either.

      In fact, it should be noted that baseball players in particular (and maybe other athletes too), have been getting a smaller and smaller share of the pie, while owners have been pocketing more and more money.

      In some very real ways, baseball players are UNDERpaid, believe it or not.

      • schmenkman

        January 8, 2018 at 5:29 pm

        (Not that we should feel sorry for them in any way, obviously, only that with TV contracts especially, there is so much money in the game now, and players aren’t getting their fair share of that).

  3. Jeff Orbach

    January 9, 2018 at 9:42 am

    I don’t think Cobb is worth the money that he wants. I would rather see the Phils hold on and see if they can get a bargain on Lance Lynn or Arrieta or even Darvish. By bargain , of course I mean not so much money, but length of contract,

    I’ve seen too many long-term contract with players over 30 turn out to be horrible to want us to get into one with Cobb or anyone. Pitchers in general need to learn to pitch again, not just throw.

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