Even when so much ancillary stuff points in the direction of a player and a team marrying up in free agency, you still can’t confidently predict that it will definitely happen. The player may wind up wanting more money than expected. The team may wind up having a strongly negative internal evaluation. The player may find an offer elsewhere too good to pass up. And so on.
But insofar as you *can* say there’s a perfect fit out there, the match between the Cubs and Alex Cobb is probably right up there. You’ve got a team in a competitive window that has multiple needs at the back of the rotation, but doesn’t want to sink too much money into a massive deal right now. You’ve got a 30-year-old pitcher who last worked with the very pitching coach that has just come over to the new team. The stars are very aligned.
Consider this quote about new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey from Cobb (from the Tampa Bay Times, via FanRag):
“I’m not going to try to explain how great Jim Hickey is,” said Cobb. “There’s really nothing I can say that would speak louder than his track record. All I can say is how fortunate I was to have him when I got to the big leagues. No one could have prepared me better. He has a talent that most organizations search for relentlessly.”
The feeling, it turns out, is very much mutual.
Hickey was on The Score to talk about his new role with the Cubs, and here’s what he had to say when asked about whether he’d like to see the Cubs going after Cobb: “I’d say, ‘Go ahead, good job, yeah I’m on board.'”
Cobb, who had Tommy John surgery in 2015, and missed most of 2016, came back with a successful 2017 season, albeit with a very different pitch mix, relying almost exclusively on his fastball and curveball.
“I would trust the arm 100 percent, especially because he did miss the time that he missed,” Hickey told The Score. “He’s a 30-year-old pitcher who’s probably sat on the shelf [for nearly three seasons]. The usage is minimal for a 30-year-old type of pitcher. What he did with basically two pitches in the American League East last year was remarkable, incredible really. It’s such a testament to his competitiveness that he basically did it with a fastball and a curveball. He did use the changeup on occasion, but it was not very effective at all, and what he did, like I said earlier, was remarkable.”
Of course, you’d love for Cobb to be able to resume using a third effective pitch, as effective two-pitch starters are very rare. But, in any case, Hickey is certainly sold that Cobb has a bright future, and it sounds like he’d love to continue to be a part of it.
And to that end, you do wonder if Cobb is simply at his best when working with Hickey. Maybe it really will be a situation where everyone recognizes that the best outcome, both for the pitcher and the team, is to get a deal together. It’s rare that you have that kind of vibe in free agency, but maybe this is the rare circumstance that warrants it.
I’m not saying the Cubs are going to get a steep discount on Cobb or anything like that, but I’ve gotta believe he’s going to give them every edge if the money is close.
For much more on Cobb, check out our deep dive from last week. You are reminded that he did receive a qualifying offer, and would thus cost the Cubs their second-highest pick in the 2018 draft to sign, as well as $500,000 in IFA pool space next year. If they like him, though, I don’t expect them to be deterred. Various projections have Cobb landing a deal in the four-to-five-year, $48-60 million range.
I feel like I have to mention one lingering thing that has me a little nervous about Cobb, though. As a contact-manager type (his strikeout rate last year was just 17.3%, 12th lowest among all qualified starters in baseball), his success is predicated so much on his ability to generate weak contact and limit hard contact, and preferably to get groundballs. Pre-surgery, he was an elite groundball pitcher. Last year, he was merely above average. Moreover, at 36.9%, Cobb allowed the 5th highest hard contact rate in baseball. His 14.9% soft contact rate was second lowest. So, then, how much of his success was owed to having the best center fielder in baseball out there to snag balls that got crushed?
(I will point out an oddity: for all their pitching success, the Rays, as a team, allowed the second most hard contact last year, and second least soft contact. A legit problem (uh oh Hickey), or some sort of tracking issue? After all, their team BABIP against was 4th BEST in baseball. That would all make sense if they had a super elite defense, but BP has their team defensive efficiency as 5th best, just ahead of the Cubs – a very good mark, but not something that would explain the extremes in the batted ball numbers.)