Zach Wilt: Alex Cobb’s improved second half a positive sign for Orioles

Throughout winter, I was hoping that the Orioles would be the winners of the Alex Cobb sweepstakes. It’s no secret that the Birds needed to improve upon their starting rotation. Orioles starters had the highest ERA in 2017 (5.70), pitched the fewest innings of any American League team (846.0) and had the AL’s second-highest walks per nine (3.74). I felt that adding Cobb, a proven starter who had faced the challenges of the AL East and was able to have a 3.50 ERA over six seasons with the Rays, would be a significant step forward for the O’s.

In the end, the Orioles were the winners of that deal. Cobb stuck around on the free agent market a lot longer than most had anticipated, but eventually signed a four-year deal on March 21 with Baltimore. Since the deal was finalized so late, it meant that Cobb didn’t join the Orioles until their last week of spring training in Sarasota. For that reason, Cobb rushed through his early season preparations and made his Baltimore debut two weeks into the season on April 14 against the Red Sox in Boston.

It wasn’t exactly what the club was hoping to see from their new starter. Cobb exited after 3 2/3 innings and seven earned runs. In two more starts in April, Cobb failed to pitched more than 4 2/3 innings and had a 13.11 ERA. In May and June, he mixed in six quality starts in 11 outings, but still had some struggles in which he was not able to reach the fourth or fifth inning. These inconsistencies gave Cobb the highest ERA of any qualified Orioles starter through the first three months of the season.

For many O’s fans, patience for Cobb wore thin. It was clear that the club was not only not going to be competitive this season, but had embraced a full rebuild. Some even looked at the Cobb signing as a reason for the front office’s decision to go with a new approach. Personally, I never found that mindset to be fair.

Cobb was rushed to start the season, was immediately thrown into a rotation that desperately needed him to be a top tier starter and was forced to watch as the team was dismantled around him. I’m sure this season hasn’t been easy for him and I am a believer that he will be much better going forward. In fact, we are already seeing those improvements.

In the first half of the season, opponents hit .313/.358/.541 against Cobb and he posted a 6.41 ERA in 17 starts. After the All-Star break, we have seen a completely different guy. Opponents are slashing .250/.297/.358 against him and he’s recorded a 2.03 ERA in five starts. Small sample? You bet it is, but Cobb has been trending in this direction and those numbers are much closer to what we’ve seen over the course of his career.

So why the sudden change? The first few months of the season could have been viewed as Cobb’s spring training. Perhaps he’s finally started to settle in and relax and Baltimore. Those are two reasonable explanations. The other that I noticed when I looked at the metrics, is that Cobb’s notorious splitter appears to have returned as an elite out pitch. In the first half, Cobb used a curveball more than a split, but so far in the second half, the split has been thrown far more. In the first half, 13.03 percent of hitters whiffed on the splitter. That’s up to 16.85 percent after the All-Star break. He’s also getting fewer balls in play and more ground balls on the splitter in the second half. He seems to have finally found his groove with his favorite pitch.

Despite a down season for the Orioles, I still think the Cobb signing was a smart move and will ultimately improve the team’s rotation. Sure, it would have been great to give Cobb more time to prepare for the 2018 season, but maybe the O’s wouldn’t have been able to sign him in the first place if he was taken off the market earlier. Regardless, they have three more years of control of a pitcher with a great track record in the AL East. Whatever they decide to do with Cobb, controlling a good pitcher in a tough division is a positive.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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