Cleveland — When Alex Cobb was making his name with the Tampa Bay Rays early in his career, his changeup was so good that it had its own name — The Thing — to say nothing of the respect it also had from opposing hitters.
Its importance to what made him successful has only become more apparent now that he has it back, after he lost a feel for it after Tommy John elbow reconstruction in 2015 and had to pitch without it.
Cobb and the Orioles feel they’ve recently had the pitcher all parties hoped he’d be when he signed a four-year, $56 million contract in March, with Cobb’s 2.09 ERA in the one month since the All-Star break ranking among the best in the American League. The return of his changeup is a big reason.
“Foremost, I’m just more comfortable on the mound than I was early on,” Cobb said. “I think the ability to have my changeup for the last, probably, the second half, has been probably a bigger deal than being comfortable on the mound. Being able to have a third pitch and be able to just have something in the back of the minds of hitters, it induces much more weak contact.
“Being able to try and navigate a lineup with two pitches like I was earlier is pretty close to impossible. That, as well as just kind of feeling more comfortable on the mound as a whole, and just being out there — just throwing. Those two things are what I’ve been working for since the day I signed, really. It’s been a tough battle, but I’m starting to come around now.”
Since the All-Star break, Cobb has been a completely different pitcher from the one he was before it. He entered the break with a 6.41 ERA, an .899 opponent OPS, and a 1.58 WHIP with 1.65 home runs allowed per nine innings. Since then, he has a 2.09 ERA with a .655 OPS against, a 1.23 WHIP and 0.58 home runs per nine innings.
Many of his other rate statistics — including strikeout rate, walk rate and ground ball rate — aren’t noticeably different. But to him, the biggest difference would be illustrated by his soft contact rate — it was 19.2 percent in the first half and has been 30.3 percent since the break, according to FanGraphs.
He credits that with finding a feel for his changeup, which was hit hard in the first half but has been a totally different pitch over the past month. He’s given up just nine hits — eight singles — on 184 changeups since the break, with 14 strikeouts and a 16.9 percent swinging strike rate on the pitch. Before the break, he got whiffs on 13.5 percent of changeups with 18 strikeouts on the pitch. He’s bumped his usage from 21.1 percent of the time before the break to 38.5 percent since, mostly because of how confident he feels throwing it.
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“It’s getting close,” Cobb said. “There’s definitely signs of it. I think the biggest thing is when I don’t execute it perfectly. Before, it was getting hit for some big damage — home runs, doubles. There was some real damage being caused by it, so I shied away from it. Now, when I don’t execute it perfectly, it’s still staying in the ballpark. It’s a lot of times getting hit on the ground. It’s still a quality pitch, even when it’s not executed perfectly. And when it is executed well, I’m getting swings and misses on it. That’s the biggest difference.”
Manager Buck Showalter said the pitch is the clear separator in the Cobb he has seen recently and the one that struggled to begin the season.
“He’s got a real feel for the split [change],” Showalter said. “I think that’s one of the byproducts of the spring, where you go through periods where you have it, then you don’t have it. It’s such a feel pitch. I think that’s one thing that’s really stood out for me.”
For Cobb, who was left at a loss at times by his inconsistency and lack of results early in the season, having the pitch back helps him accomplish what he set out to do basically since the beginning of July — to find a good feeling to be able to bring into the offseason and ensure the remaining three years of his contract with the Orioles are good ones, as the team hopefully returns to being competitive.
The longer the can keep this run going, with the help of a working changeup to complement his fastball and curveball, the uncertainty of whether he’d ever be the same after his career-altering elbow surgery will be further behind him.
“I was just really lost on the mound, and it’s been a constant, everyday burden on me just trying to capture those mechanics again and just have the arm slot, to have an ability to get the changeup to do what it’s doing,” Cobb said. “The changeup is the one that was harmed the most by the delivery coming back from Tommy John, but really, all my pitches were different.
“They were still good enough to get by, and that almost made them a little bit better, but I think all in all, I’ll just kind of think of this stretch in my career as instrumental to hopefully where I’m going to end up being, as the time and period where I really figured it all out I’m just working to get back to where I was, and I’ve started to get signs of that.”