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AL Wild Card Preview: A look at Tampa Bay's Alex Cobb, tonight's starter

Although the Indians will miss David Price tonight, they aren't getting much of a break because tonight's starter has pitched as well (if not better) than Price this season.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight the Indians are going to be participating in their first playoff game in six years, and it could also be their last game of the season. The Indians could have avoided all this by winning the AL Central, or more specifically, by being even slightly sub-par against the Tigers, but they didn't, so the 92-win Indians will have to play a coin flip game against a very good Tampa Bay Rays team.

Last night in the podcast the consensus was that the Indians would be better off playing the Rangers than the Rays because we thought the Rays were the better team. And that goes whether the Indians were playing Tampa Bay in a five-game series or this one-game "series." Tampa Bay's lineup is better this year than in recent seasons (thanks to a healthy Evan Longoria and a fantastic rookie season by Wil Myers), but it's been their rotation that has again been their main asset.

Last winter the Rays traded James Shields to Kansas City, but they've managed to do just fine without him thanks to a trio of young pitchers stepping up: Chris Archer (Age 24), Matt Moore (Age 24), and tonight's starter Alex Cobb (Age 25).

Cobb wasn't a heralded prospect. Sure, he usually made the organization's Top 10 lists, but most scouts saw him as a back-of-the-rotation guy or possibly a reliever, which is to say that his upside wasn't that considered very high. Yet he's done this in his young major-league career:

Year Age Tm Lg ERA GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
2011 23 TBR AL 3.42 9 52.2 49 20 3 21 37 111 8.4 0.5 3.6 6.3 1.76
2012 24 TBR AL 4.03 23 136.1 130 61 11 40 106 96 8.6 0.7 2.6 7.0 2.65
2013 25 TBR AL 2.76 22 143.1 120 44 13 45 134 138 7.5 0.8 2.8 8.4 2.98
3 Yrs 3.39 54 332.1 299 125 27 106 277 113 8.1 0.7 2.9 7.5 2.61
162 Game Avg. 3.39 34 209 188 79 17 67 174 113 8.1 0.7 2.9 7.5 2.61
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/2/2013.

Not exactly back-of-the-rotation material, eh? Of AL starters with 140 innings or more, he ranks 5th in the league in xFIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), behind Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, Anibal Sanchez, and Chris Sale. The reason why Alex Cobb has only thrown 140.1 innings this year is that he was hit in the head by a line drive by Kansas City's Eric Hosmer in June. Cobb missed two months, but when he came back he was just as good as before the injury, which is amazing considering both the time missed and the circumstances of the injury.

Alex Cobb has done this despite not throwing his fastball all that often, the pitch that usually is easiest to throw for strikes. And Cobb is not a flamethrower either, as his fastball sits around 90-91 mph. According to Brooks Baseball, Cobb has thrown his fastball (fourseam/sinker) only 43.24% of the time. The reason why he's been so effective is that his other two pitches have turned into plus-plus pitches. His curve, which is the pitch that he's picked up recently, is missing bats at 9.37% rate. And his splitter had been incredible, with batters swinging and missing at a 19.13% rate. You don't see many pitchers thriving on a splitter/curve combination, but Cobb has.

The main reason that split/curve combination has worked so well is that Cobb can throw the curve for strikes. This season Cobb throws his curve almost 40% of the time in the first pitch of the at-bat, and about 60% of the time the pitch is either swung at or called a strike. And once he gets two strikes on you, he breaks out his splitter, which is just about unhittable.

You can see those three pitches in action against the Baltimore Orioles in late September:

The Tribe hitters have their work cut out for them tonight.