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The underrated Alex Cobb

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Alex Cobb doesn't get the credit he deserves. Granted, he's not underrated to the level of some AL pitchers (Chris Sale comes to mind), but he's not exactly popping up on everyone's radar. Exactly how good Cobb has been and the way that he's gotten there are interesting, if you're into under-hyped mid-20 year old pitchers.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

I'll admit that even I didn't recognize the value of Cobb until I came across his name in an unexpected place. I was perusing a Fangraphs leaderboard for pitchers in the second half, seeing many of the usual suspects taking up the spots atop the fWAR leaderboard.

Intrigued, I check out a FIP leaderboard and saw many of the standard names: Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, Alex Cobb, Garrett Richards, David Price, Madison Bumgarner. A big yawn rose up, until I did a double take. Alex Cobb?

Some Background

Let's take a step back and learn a bit about our subject. Alex Cobb has rarely received love from the baseball writing community. In 2013 fellow BtBSer Alex Skillin wrote about Cobb being overlooked among a talented Rays rotation. I'll steal a quote from Alex's article to illustrate one of the most important points you should take away from this article:

Alex Cobb was in no way a heralded prospect (Baseball America ranked him No. 14 in the organization's system in 2008, No. 21 in 2009, and No. 16 in 2010, the year before he debuted in the majors).  Similar appraisals of Cobb's potential labeled him as a"future No. 4 starter" or someone who may even end up in the bullpen.

Alex Skillin - Alex Cobb and Being Overlooked

To reiterate, those rankings quoted above are WITHIN THE RAYS SYSTEM.  Not only was Cob never considered a top 100 prospect in MLB, he was never even considered a top 10 prospect in Tampa Bay's own system. Surely though, the prospect evaluators saw the err in their ways by the time Cobb was set to come up for his second tour of MLB duty, right?

No, no they did not. Kevin Goldstein, the guy who ran Baseball Prospectus' prospect team so well that the Houston Astros hired him away to be their Director of Pro Scoutingwrote about Cobb when the Rays called him up in 2010:

Immediate big league future: Cobb is in line for at least 6-8 starts, and while he's unlikely to dominate, he should hold his own and deliver quality starts. That could get him plenty of wins with the Rays.

Long-term: There is no organization in which it's harder to be a pitching prospect than the Rays, who have no room for solid yet unspectacular arms. His future in Tampa might be in middle relief, but he could start for other teams.

Kevin Goldstein - The Call-Up: Alex Cobb

The bolded emphasis is my own, but the words are from Goldstein's original analysis. Also remember that this is after Cobb made his MLB debut and pitched to a 3.42 ERA over 9 starts and 52.2 IP in 2011. Now I'm not trying to pile on to Kevin Goldstein or the other prospect evaluators out there, I'm simply trying to make the point that nobody expected this from Alex Cobb.

What is "this"?

When I say "nobody expected this from Alex Cobb" I'm referring to his very good 2013 and 2014 campaigns. In 2013 Cobb posted an 89 FIP- meaning that his FIP was 11% better than league average. If you're into ERA, Cobb posted an even more remarkable 73 ERA- meaning he was 27% better than MLB average in 2013 when it came to ERA.

For 2014, his numbers are right around the same area, as he's posted an 87 FIP- and an 80 ERA- over 133 IP so far this season. If you look at the numbers I initially mentioned (the second half) Cobb looks even more dominant. Over 57 IP since the All Star break Cobb has posted an ERA- of 39 and a FIP- of 61. So while his second half ERA seems to be luck-driven, his FIP suggests it's not as lucky as it might seem on face value.

Before this season we noted that Cobb was a breakout candidate, though it's hard to break out when the season before your proposed breakout was actually very good. Landon Jones hit on that very aspect of Cobb's "breakout":

In fact, one could argue that Cobb has already taken a huge leap forward. You wouldn't get much push-back from me there, but from a mainstream perspective, I believe this will be Cobb's breakout season.

Landon JonesAlex Cobb Has Next

How is he doing it?

Cobb has done it by tweaking his repertoire a bit, but ultimately he's used a three pitch mix to succeed in 2014. The venerable Eno Sarris noted that Cobb's use of his splitter has increased over the second half, which is good for Cobb because it's unarguably his best pitch. Cobb's splitter is so good that teaching the pitch to Jake Odorizzi has helped Odorizzi take a big step forward this season according to BtBS's Alex Skillin.

Cobb is also picking back up usage of his fastball which he all but abandoned half way through 2013. Opposing hitters have only hit .214 against his four-seam fastball this season, the second lowest average against any pitch of Cobb's. He's still using it judiciously (just 3% of the time on the season), but his usage has increased month over month since June.

Cobb has been a very good under-the-radar pitcher for Tampa Bay so far in his career. It's yet to be seen if he'll ascend to the level of staff ace formerly held by guys like James Shields and David Price, but Tampa Bay doesn't have to wonder if they have arms in the stable that can handle top of the rotation duties. The Rays don't need Alex Cobb to breakout, he's already been on the scene for more than a year now.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Baseball-Reference.

Jeff Long is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and Baltimore Sports and Life. You can follow him on Twitter at @BSLJeffLong.