Cobb Toying With Cutter | The Process Report

Cobb Toying With Cutter

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported the other day that Alex Cobb used a cutter in a game for the first time. This doesn’t come as a surprise: Other Rays like James Shields, David Price, Wade Davis, and Jeremy Hellickson have added cutters in recent years for various reasons, including to broaden shallow arsenals. Cobb already has a fastball/curveball/split-change mix of pitches that has been effective for him to date. So what does another pitch mean?

Joe Maddon was not a fan when Hellickson started adding the cutter to his pitch mixture last season. Maddon offered this thought to Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune:

“You only pick up a pitch like that (cutter) if the other parts of the package aren’t working or if you need something else, otherwise I prefer you pitch with what you have. Normally, it’s later in your career.”

Maddon’s words support the usage of the pitch by Davis last season who waited until his fourth season in the majors, one in which he was used out of the bullpen after struggling with decreased velocity and the lack of an offspeed pitch in 2011.  Shields, Hellickson, and Price all began adding the pitch to their repertoire in their third season in the major leagues just as Cobb.  The groundwork for doing this was addressed by Jim Hickey in an interview at FanGraphs with David Laurila in late September 2011. In that interview, Hickey offered this in response to Laurila’s inquiry about the large number of breaking pitches Shields threw:

That’s just a lot of data and research. I have liked his curveball. I’ve been on him for a couple of years to throw his curveball more, because he has a really good one. I think it’s a very underrated pitch. I feel the same way about Hellickson. I think these guys with good changeups, that have another good pitch, like a curveball, if they’re able to utilitze them more often, can take the heat off the changeup. It make the changeup an even better pitch by not exposing it as much.

Shields has really developed his cutter and his curveball the last couple of years which I think has made his changeup even better.

For Cobb’s major-league career, he has thrown his fastball 48 percent of the time, his curveball 18 percent of time, and his split-change 35 percent of the time. In reviewing the data from Cobb’s player card at BrooksBaseball, Cobb is throwing that split-change 47 percent of the time to left-handed hitters in two-strike counts and 50 percent of the time to right-handed hitters in similar counts. Those figures seem large, but they are low compared to Shields’s first full season when he went to his changeup 52 percent of the time to put right-handed hitters away and 62 percent of the time to put left-handed hitters away.

The standard train of thought is pitchers will use their changeup more often against opposite-handed pitching because of the fading action of the pitch yet once Shields gained full command of his cutter, he went against logic and began throwing his changeup more frequently to same-handed hitters as a backdoor cutter gave him another option against lefties. This was a process Tommy Rancel laid out late last season:

By pairing the changeup and the cutter in two-strike counts, Shields puts the opposition in a tough position. They can sit on the harder pitch and risk an early swing on the change-up. Or they can wait for the softer stuff only to be late on a cutter or left frozen when the pitch does not as they expected.

In reviewing where Cobb likes to work with his changeup in two-strike counts, adding a new wrinkle in 2013 would back up the processes laid out by Hickey and Rancel (data courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info):

strike-zone (6)

2013 expectations for Cobb are encouraging because the groundball specialist will have a revamped defense behind him that is arguably the best one the Rays have put on the field in franchise history.  With Price, Hellickson, and Matt Moore in front of him, Cobb can work on his cutter as well as some issues he has pitching from the stretch. He will likely run into some of the same struggles that Hellickson ran into last season and Shields and Price before him, but Cobb will be a better pitcher for it when he emerges on the other side of Stage 3.

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