BOSTON — Alex Cobb's unique split-changeup used to be his signature pitch, but since returning from Tommy John surgery, he's constantly battled with finding the feel for his top swing-and-miss offering.
In preparing for this season — building his innings with three simulated games and one extended spring training game in Sarasota, Fla. — Cobb felt as though he was getting the pitch back. It was one of the reasons Cobb was adamant about using major league baseballs in his preparation for the season, and even though he wasn't facing major league competition, he believed the movement was there, and he went into his first start with the Orioles eager to see whether that optimism was warranted.
But an underlying theme of Cobb's forgettable Orioles debut Saturday afternoon in a 10-3 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park was how Cobb had faith in executing his split-changeup, going to it in several key counts, but that Boston batters hit it hard.
The pitch itself is distinct. Cobb throws it with a split-fingered grip, but he refers to it as a changeup. Major League Baseball's Statcast feature distinguishes it as a splitter. It bears the quality of a splitter, looking like his sinker coming out of the hand but then takes a dramatic dip before it reaches the plate, but it also bears the typical 7-8 mph difference in velocity from a fastball that most changeups possess.
Whatever you want to call the pitch, it remains an important one in Cobb's three-pitch arsenal.
"It had been so good this spring, working on it and obviously it was extended spring, and you can say, well the hitters are different," Cobb said. "It wasn't the fact that I was facing those hitters, it was the fact that the pitch was moving and it was doing what it was supposed to do."
Since surgery, Cobb began to use his curveball more as his primary off-speed pitch to complement his two-seam sinking fastball, putting his split-changeup on the back burner. But on Saturday, he used the two secondary pitches fairly equally in his 79-pitch outing, throwing his curveball 19 times and the split-change 16 times.
When Cobb's split-change was its most effective before surgery, it drew a whiff percentage between 15 and 21 percent annually. On Saturday, it didn't miss many bats. Of the 16 times he threw the pitch, it was put in play 11 times, and the Red Sox recorded five hits off the pitch, according to Statcast data provided on BaseballSavant.com. He drew zero swing-and-misses from the pitch.
The damage the Red Sox did against the pitch was clear. In Boston's three-run first inning, Andrew Benintendi's RBI double on the second batter of the inning came on a 2-1 split-changeup. And Hanley Ramirez's ensuing two-run homer over the Green Monster in left field was on a 2-2 changeup.
Neither pitch dipped late. Both were hit in the zone. When Cobb's split-change is at its best, it's rarely thrown for a strike, it only looks like one, which is why it has been such an effective swing-and-miss pitch. According to the BaseballSavant.com strike zone chart, only four of Cobb's 16 split-changeups were out of the strike zone.
"I really felt a lot of confidence in that this offseason and going through spring training," Cobb said. "Each time you're out there, you think that next pitch, you're going to fix it and you're going to do it. You try it and you throw it with all the confidence you have and whatever was off kept leading to some poor changeups over the heart of the plate."