First-year Columbus Catfish pitcher Alex Cobb had a low-key beginning to his professional baseball career.
There was no draft day party with throngs of family, friends and high school teammates. No balloons and champagne. No television cameras and hordes of reporters.
“Actually the Internet was down at my house so my Dad and I went down to his office and kept up with the draft there,” laughed Cobb.
The now-20-year-old right-hander was fresh off a successful career at Vero Beach High School. His impressive prep performance caught the attention of college recruiters, and, after he was sought after heavily by several premier baseball programs, he signed a letter of intent to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference at Clemson University. He then turned in a dominant senior season on the mound, posting a miniscule ERA of 1.09 in 139 innings of work while yielding only 24 hits in 74.0 innings pitched.
Thus, professional scouts began to take notice.
During the spring, Cobb was in frequent contact with the Tampa Bay organization with his father, Rick, handling the contract negotiations. The then-Devil Rays planned to select him in the fourth round but promised a third-round signing bonus. There were lingering doubts for him, however, and pursuing a college career at Clemson was still a real possibility as the draft approached.
“Until draft day, I had doubts,” remembers Cobb, who the Rays selected with the 109th overall pick in 2006. “Until my first workout with the Rays I still had doubts. A college recruiter told me I’d be drafted pretty high. Through the process I’d been telling scouts I’d only go if I was picked in the top three rounds. Otherwise, I was going to Clemson. Then it turned out I went in the fourth round, but got third-round money.”
The Boston native has lived in sunny Florida since he was two. Home to the Los Angeles Dodgers spring training site and High Single-A team for many years, Vero Beach provided Cobb his first peak into the world of professional baseball. He was a bat boy for the Dodgers for three seasons during his middle school and early high school years.
Although he never pictured himself taking the mound for the Dodgers, Cobb took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the game. New York Mets’ first baseman Carlos Delgado was his mentor during those formative baseball years. “We would talk every day. I’d ask him questions about the pitchers and what made them so successful,” said Cobb.
Once an agreement with Tampa Bay was reached, Cobb began his professional career at short-season Princeton in the bullpen at the end of the summer in ’06. “The season was two-thirds done and I’d missed so much. I’d throw two bullpens and live batting practice, then a simulated game for three weeks. The rotation was set and they didn’t want to move anybody out. I’ve always been a starter. It was my only experience in the bullpen except once or twice I was asked to close out a game in high school.” He posted an ERA of 5.19 in six appearances at Princeton without recording a decision in only 8.2 innings of work.
After getting his feet wet as a pro, Cobb embarked upon his first full season with the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York Penn League in 2007. He remembers his time in upstate New York as a positive experience. “It was a nice way to be introduced to pro ball. We were playing in front of 5,000 fans a game, and that was a learning experience, to play in front of that many people. You also learn how to handle yourself."
Cobb got off to an excellent start to the season, but struggled at times down the stretch. He finished the year with a 5-6 record, registering an ERA of 3.54 in 81.1 innings over 16 appearances.
This season, though, Cobb has been a model of consistency with the Catfish, last year’s South Atlantic League Champions. As the season approaches the halfway mark, the club is struggling to maintain its championship-level performance from 2007, but Cobb, who has justified his manager’s decision to hand him the ball on opening day, has been a force at the top of the Columbus starting rotation.
“It was great to be told that,” said Cobb on getting the nod to start the season opener. “I was the opening night starter last season and was all jitters. Cal Ripken, Jr. was there to throw out the first pitch in front of 8,000 fans. I learned from it, though, and this year was really focused.”
Cobb’s current numbers confirm his ability to consistently command his pitches. Through 11 starts overall, the Catfish ace is 6-3 with a 2.13 ERA in 11 games started while limiting opponents to a .211 batting average against. Perhaps equally impressive is his 45-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 63.1 innings pitched and 1.03 WHIP, which ranks among the best in the Sally League. Cobb, who has worked no less than five innings in all of his outings, has allowed an earned run or less on seven different occasions.
Flirting with a no-hitter last week against the Asheville Tourists was one of Cobb's first-half highlights. In that start on May 27 in Asheville, he tossed seven, one-hit shutout innings, with an infield single as the only blemish on the night. Cobb diplomatically wouldn’t assess the quality of the hit, but perhaps it was just as well that the no-hitter was broken up then, as Catfish hurlers are limited to 90 pitches.
Since no-hitters are rare, especially this early in the season, it’s possible Catfish manager Matt Quatraro and pitching coach Bill Maloney would have allowed Cobb to exceed the 90-pitch limit. The decision would have been based on not just his pitch total, but how Cobb arrived at that number.
Consistency was Cobb's goal coming into his first long season as a pro. At Hudson Valley he made 16 starts. As a Catfish he will make close to that by the season's midpoint.
"My goal coming in was consistency. To this point I've been able to do it. As a team, it's the most sought-after skill in all of sports."
The Catfish are mired in a long losing streak, having suffered 10 straight defeats dating back to May 22. Cobb feels the team's pressure but has evaded it when taking the hill. "You can feel the pressure if you let it. It's one of the developmental stages that we go through not to let it affect how you go about your job. You can only control what you can."
Cobb will look to help the right the ship tonight, when he squares off against Maikel Cleto and the Savannah Sand Gnats.
Update: Cobb on Monday was elected to the South Atlantic League All-Star team, joining two of his Catfish teammates, outfielders Maiko Loyola and Emeel Salem.