How Alex Cobb Became a Giant

The Giants won 107 games last season, and their rotation deserves a ton of credit; only the Brewers and Dodgers, two teams expected to thrive off starting pitching, managed to record lower FIPs. But San Francisco took everyone by surprise, winnings games with the likes of Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, and postseason hero Logan Webb. Looking to retain some of last season’s magic, the Giants recently inked new deals with Wood and DeSclafani. Yet Kevin Gausman, their ace, eluded them, ultimately signing a five-year contract with the Blue Jays and leaving an unmistakable hole in their rotation. But while a pitcher like Gausman is irreplaceable, the Giants could find the next big sleeper — another under-the-radar signing just like he was.

And so they’ve arrived at Alex Cobb, signing him to a two-year deal worth $20 million, which includes a club option for 2024. If the Giants are satisfied with his performance, that option will grant him $10 million, and if not, they have the option to buy him out for $2 million.

In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that they decided to pursue Cobb. He’s the exact type of pitcher I think that they have a liking toward, and I wanted to explain why.

Cobb pitched for the Angels in 2021, but the spotlight there was on two-way phenomenon Shohei Ohtani. Still, what he achieved in 93.1 innings is nothing to sneeze at, with career bests in FIP, fastball velocity, and strikeout rate, which might have been masked by a not-as-flattering 3.76 ERA. That surge in strikeout rate is particularly notable; before the 2021 season, Cobb last had one above 20% in 2014 — a whopping seven years ago. You just don’t fluke into something like that.

But even that career-high strikeout rate was still just 24.9%, as Cobb isn’t exactly a bat-missing machine. Actually, none of the Giants’ headlining starters are, either; the only guy in the ’21 rotation with a K/9 above 10 was Gausman. But there’s another appealing aspect of Cobb’s game — a skill the Giants highly covet.

Pitchers have much less control over the contact they produce compared to hitters, but it’s still true that some are more adept at inducing weak contact than others. I think what pitchers can mainly influence is launch angle and not exit velocity, though exit velocity can very well be a product of launch angles; for example, pop-ups usually don’t get hit at 100 mph (unless you’re Joey Gallo). But we can see which pitchers avoid the worst kind of contact through barrel rate, and among 152 pitchers who allowed 250 or more batted balls in ’21, Wood comes in at No. 16, and Webb is right behind him at 17. DeSclafani is in the middle of the pack, but that’s because he’s more of a fly-ball pitcher in comparison (which can also result in weak contact).

But how about the newcomer, Cobb? At a mere 4.2%, his barrel rate was the fourth-best in the majors. When hitters make contact against him, they usually end up spiking the ground, and even when they do successfully elevate, not much harm is done. And he should be getting more help from his new teammates: the Giants ranked sixth in infield Outs Above Average (+19) last season, a huge contrast from the 22nd-place Angels (-11).

What’s fascinating, though, is that Cobb achieved such a low barrel rate with a career-high strikeout rate. There’s a certain, inevitable trade-off between contact and strikeouts: Power pitchers tend to be a little home run prone, whereas the Wade Mileys and Adrian Housers of the world keep the ball low at the expense of fewer whiffs. That’s due to necessary differences in repertoires, but Cobb seems to have found a nice balance. In fact, every projected Giants starter so far lives in that rare sweet spot.

Not surprisingly, they have a couple traits in common. Cobb, Wood, and Webb all primarily use a sinker, which is backed up by an off-speed pitch and a breaking ball. The last two are heavier on their breaking balls than Cobb, whose pièce de résistance is a splitter that trips up hitters, not his curve, but the basic framework is there. Even DeSclafani uses a mix of sinkers and four-seamers, along with four other offerings that I have no idea how he manages. Sinkers gained a bad reputation a few years ago for being ill-suited to certain pitchers, but that’s if they’re capable of throwing incredible cheese up in the zone. If you’re someone who doesn’t get much ride on your fastball, they can be a fantastic option. Giants pitchers dominated last season with a mixture of weak contact and timely strikeouts, and Cobb is a perfect addition to that strategy. I have no idea how they go about optimizing pitch usage — believe me, I’d love to know — but it’s proven to have worked.

So yes, he fits in with his new team’s pitching philosophy. There’s a reason, though, that his services only cost $20 million. Think of where Wood was prior to the ’21 season. He’d thrown just 12.2 innings for the Dodgers during the regular season, and even with a stellar postseason, that usually isn’t enough for most teams. Not for the Giants, who took a chance and were promptly rewarded. DeSclafani was coming off a miserable year in Cincinnati and seemed all but forgotten until the Giants brought him on. Nobody besides prospect aficionados knew much about Webb prior to his breakout season.

So let’s address the elephant in the room: Cobb only threw 93.1 innings last season. Various injuries kept him off the mound, leading credence to the idea that while he is good, he’s not reliable. He hasn’t had a full season’s worth of work since 2018, and he’s been dealing with those injuries ever since, and though the Giants hit the jackpot with the similarly injury-prone Wood, that doesn’t mean they’re more likely to roll a 20 on Cobb as well.

This is a risky move, no doubt. Cobb alone is no replacement for Gausman, though it looks like the Giants may be on the prowl for additional arms. But the potential payoff is massive. Even a 93-inning version of Cobb is easily worth a $10 million AAV; a workload of around 140–150 innings should lead to even better results. Steamer is optimistic, pegging him at 151 innings next season, but it also expects him to regress to his career norms in terms of strikeout rate and runs allowed. Indeed, it’s entirely possible he’s had the best season of his career, results-wise, and that his continuous struggles with injuries make it impossible for even the crafty Giants to manage his workload. The downside is equally easy to imagine.

If we toss aside the extremes, though, and just think about a 50th percentile outcome for Cobb and the Giants, I still like this deal a ton. It’s one any team could have offered, but without much buzz surrounding him, San Francisco swooped in. Out to rebuild the rotation, the team stumbled on a pitcher whose skillset is exactly what already works.

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