CHICAGO — There's no such thing as a second first impression, so eight starts into his Orioles career, club-record free-agent signing Alex Cobb knows it's time to move on from the one he's made.
With each passing outing, the biggest addition the Orioles made this offseason veers closer and closer toward the unpleasant status that was attached to the man who held the club's richest pitching contract before him — Ubaldo Jiménez, who struggled early and never overcame his poor introduction to Baltimore.
They're different pitchers in many ways, with so much about Cobb, 30, saying he's better than both what he's shown and the other half of this comparison. But Jiménez's price tag and the way he started his Orioles career defined the entire life of his deal.
Wednesday's loss to the Chicago White Sox, when Cobb allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings, was an unwelcome step in the wrong direction.
"There's been some absolute difficulties for not only me but us as a team to start the season," Cobb said. "But I'm not going to look into how people view me as a pitcher. I'd obviously love to go out there and show the fan base and all of baseball that the Orioles made the right decision in getting me, but it hasn't gone according to plan to start the season.
"I no doubt believe that I will return to form, and this commitment that we made — we made to each other — that it'll end up working out for both sides. But you do your best convincing when you're on the mound and pitching a good game. I plan on not looking too much into the stats, and the overall season of numbers, but going game to game and trying to put a good streak together."
Wednesday, at least early, looked like it would be another piece in the little run of success he'd built. Cobb, coming off three quality starts in four tries thatbrought his ERA down from 13.11 to 6.56, retired the first seven batters he faced on 27 pitches before he walked Tim Anderson and the White Sox began to square him up. His curveball, which racked up three strikeouts on the first five hitters he faced, was suddenly up in the zone. And Cobb couldn't get back on track.
"I don't know," Cobb said. "I was feeling really good to start the game. But getting back out there in the third or so, the ball just wasn't going where I was feeling like I was aiming for. I tried to overcompensate that a little bit and used too much of my body. I just didn't feel like the ball was coming out very well, and going to where I was looking to drive it. I left some balls over the plate, and more importantly, left some curveballs up that got hit."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said the fact that Cobb signed in late March and had to rush his spring training in his new environs isn't an excuse anyone will use.
"He's not going to ever broadcast an excuse," Showalter said. "It's just not the way he or anybody is. It's just something that has been the narrative by people — not us. We just answer the question because they're constantly saying, 'Is that it? Is that it?' He's got a track record of pitching better. I'm not going to say that's not the case, but it's certainly, you look for things that are different going into a season. And that's one of them.”
Jiménez will forever be the cautionary tale for the Orioles' forays into the free-agent pitching market, his four-year contract signed ahead of the 2014 season. He lost the fan base with a rough April in the first year of his deal — he went 0-4 with a 6.59 ERA that month.
Through eight starts, as Cobb is now, Jiménez had mixed in a few good ones and improved to 2-4 with a 4.02 ERA. Yet by the beginning of July of that year, he was on the disabled list with an ankle injury the team said occurred when he rolled it in a parking lot pothole. That came when he had a 4.52 ERA, and he never really got his rotation spot back the rest of the season.
Jiménez's contract expired at the end of last season with a 5.22 ERA in four years with the Orioles, and his deal was cited in the offseason as part of the reason the Orioles were going to sit out of the upper tiers of the free-agent market this offseason.
Then spring training came, and they signed Andrew Cashner to a modest two-year deal with reasonable results so far, and Chris Tillman to a one-year, make-good contract that hasn't panned out. Cobb's four-year, $57 million deal trumped both.
There was and remains to be a lot to think Cobb would fare differently than his predecessor. Everything from his demeanor and his mentorship role in the clubhouse to his track record with a 3.50 ERA with the Tampa Bay Rays and ability to grind out a strong 2017 with essentially two pitches points that way. He's been done in plenty by an Orioles defense that's limited in several places, but puts that on himself to miss more bats and take that out of play.
Wednesday makes four starts where he’s allowed five or more runs and not completed five innings, though his other four games were strong. It’s also seven starts where he’s allowed seven or more hits, and his WHIP is 1.93.
Both Cobb and Showalter are looking toward whichever fix it will take to harness what they believe is much of what made him successful in the past.
"His stuff is fine," Showalter said. "His velocity, [too]. His command's not where he wants to. We're all trying to get comfortable, whether it's a hitter with his mechanics or a pitcher with his delivery and mechanics. It just hasn't been that consistent comfort zone, I think for him, about how he feels about where he is."