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What do the Cubs see in Alex Cobb?

As the Winter Meetings open, chatter surrounds the Northsiders and a former Ray.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The most glaring difference between the 2016 and 2017 Chicago Cubs was a decided starting pitching deficiency. Last year, they were third in pitching WAR (17.4), first in ERA (2.96), and fifth in FIP (3.72); those numbers fell to 12th (11.8), 7th (4.05) and 10th (4.27), respectively, this year. Jake Arrieta had a disappointing contract year, Jon Lester was a bit off, Kyle Hendricks had a bad first half, and they had no depth. Even getting Jose Quintana couldn’t staunch the bleeding. Now with Arrietta gone and Lackey too old, they to rearm the rotation. As Winter Meetings approach, John Heyman of FanRag Sports has reported their interest in Rays pitcher Alex Cobb:

Cobb isn’t the flashiest name on the free agent pitching market, and the Cubs do certainly have money to spend. Especially with all their best players tied up on cheap contracts. They’ll likely be in the running for Yu Darvish. They could reunite with Arietta. They could glance at Lance Lynn. But Cobb is an intriguing name. What, exactly, do they see in him?

Cobb needed to have a good 2017 as he faced free agency, and after missing a whole season and throwing only 22 innings in 2016, he took the mound for 179.1 innings of 2.4-WAR, 3.66-ERA pitching. More than that, he showed growth throughout the year:

Alex Cobb 2017 splits

Timeframe IP ERA K% BB% GB% HR/FB
Timeframe IP ERA K% BB% GB% HR/FB
1st Half 115.1 3.75 15.8 6.2 45.2 9.9
2nd Half 64.0 3.52 20.0 5.4 52.3 20.8

He did throw twice as many innings in the first half, but even with an insane home run rate spike, his numbers improved. (Except FIP, which leapt even as his xFIP fell. But again, the home runs.) He’s been good before, too — between 2013 and 2014, he struck out 22.5 percent of batters, walked only 7.5 percent and held a 2.82 ERA and 3.19 FIP over 309.2 innings. He had all the makings of a future ace before arm troubles waylaid him.

However he was also a completely different pitcher then — a Rays pitcher in the most complete sense. They preach the religion of the offspeed, schooling minor league pitchers on the value of the change-of-pace pitch that hitters swing over and tap softly to infielders. Cobb leaned on his, throwing a split-change (Fangraphs calls it a splitter, TexasLeaguers and Brooks Baseball a change-up) more than any other pitch — 30.2 percent of the time. He was excellent with it But he lost it.

Eno Sarris wrote about this over at Fangraphs back in April, noting how amazingly different Cobb’s change was. Once known as The Thing, it became simply something. It was filthy back in 2014:

And in early 2017, it was quite pedestrian:

That’s a batting practice fastball right there. Cobb quit on the pitch at some point this year, and judging from that last throw, it makes sense. He threw it 113 times in his short stint back in 2016, but relied on it less and less throughout 2017:

It’s plain he knew it wasn’t there anymore. But he thought proactively. He started leaning on the curve and took a page out of Sandy Koufax or Juan Marichal’s book, really becoming a two-pitch pitcher and throwing it 34.1 percent of the time this year. What’s old is new again, and he’s taken to the curve like a pig to filth.

This, I think, is why the Cubs so value Cobb. Remember the 2016 World Series? The Cleveland Indians outmatched and outlasted their way to a magnificent Game 7, after getting past two very potent offenses in the Blue Jays and Red Sox despite having two-and-a-half healthy starting pitchers. They did this by leaning heavily on the curveball. They nearly beat the Cubs in the Fall Classic by this same tactic, but ran out of gas. The Cubs that year were the worst curveball-hitting team in baseball by FanGraphs’ Pitch Values, and the Sox and Jays were right at the bottom with them.

Many of the hitters on those teams were young players that have grown up in the modern game. Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Javier Baez — these guys and their ilk are the future of the league. Fast-forward to the 2017 playoffs, and MVP candidate Aaron Judge, the most perfect representation of the modern game's focus on three true outcomes, flailed helplessly when faced with a good curveball.

All these young hitters came up through the prep leagues, college, even the minors, without seeing too many curves because people simply didn't throw them. This year, curves were thrown 10.9 percent of the time in MLB, the most since 2002. This number has risen every year since 2013, too, when it was in the mid-9’s. Everyone's a fastball hitter now. Outside of knuckleballs, the curve is the most non-fastball pitch there is. The Cubs know this. They saw the savaging curves did to their best hitters. They want to do this to other hitters.

The real question is whether Cobb will go the way of Drew Pomeranz and Rich Hill, and throw curves and fastballs at a near-equal amount. If his changeup is truly lost to him, it wouldn’t be a surprising development. He has one of the better curves among starters, too. Only four pitchers who threw at least 500 curves this year — Lance McCullers, Cody Allen, Jimmy Nelson and Trevor Bauer — had a better spin rate. Plus, it had the third-most vertical movement of any curveball thrown at least 500 times, at 2.06 feet according to Baseball Savant. He’s shown an ability to get guys to chase it, too: Hitters swung at his curve out of the zone 36.1 percent of the time, well above the leaguer average chase rate of 29.9 percent. He may have found something very dangerous for hitters.

The Cubs know what great hitters like and don’t like because they have a bunch of them on their own team. They see what Cobb can do. In the event he can actually rediscover that change he once had, Cobb will flip into ace-dom. But even with just a solid fastball and a killer curve, he can be a great starter for them. Plus, he only has to be the third- or fourth-best guy in the rotation. They wouldn’t be counting on him. And they could find a true gem in this rebuilt pitcher.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about all things baseball at Beyond the Box Score and delves into the Cleveland Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. Follow him on Twitter @merrittrohlfing. Ask him questions.