As if anyone needed further confirmation that no pitcher is safe from Tommy John surgery in today’s MLB, another ace has bitten the dust.

This time, it’s Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Alex Cobb. And while that’s a shame in and of itself, what makes it an even bigger shame is that his career as an ace was just beginning to take off.

If you haven’t yet heard the bad news, the Rays tweeted it out late Friday afternoon:

This, granted, doesn’t come as a surprise.

The writing was on the wall Thursday. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reported the 27-year-old Cobb was going to try the rest-and-rehab approach to healing the partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, but also that Tommy John remained a possibility.

“Whether it’ll take that long on my end I dont know,” said Cobb. “I’m still weighing my options. I’m still going back and forth of what I want to do.”

Wherever there’s a torn UCL, Tommy John does indeed have a strong track record of going from an option to a necessity. Cobb is now just one of many pitchers who can vouch.

And now that the decision has been made, the Rays’ chances of making it back to October have certainly been dealt a blow. In Cobb, they’re losing a guy who had a 2.82 ERA across 49 starts in 2013 and 2014. Guys like that tend to come in handy in a pennant race.

But don’t just feel bad for the Rays. Also feel free to light a candle for yet another ace claimed by the Tommy John menace.

This year alone, Tommy John has already claimed the elbows of Yu Darvish, Zack Wheeler, Brandon McCarthy and Homer Bailey. And so it goes, as this year’s sacrifices are coming on the heels of Matt Harvey being lost late in 2013 and Kris Medlen, Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore and Jose Fernandez being lost in 2014.

And that’s really just a small taste of the big picture.

There’s a complete list of Tommy John surgery victims available at Baseball Heat Maps, and 295 of the 972 victims on it have fallen prey to the menace since 2012. That’s roughly 30 percent, which is quite a lot for less than a three-and-a-half-year window.

It’s an epidemic, all right, and not one that’ll be easy to stop.

At the major league level, teams need to start worrying about mechanics at least as much as they’re already worrying about pitch counts. Down below the major league level, MLB needs to hope its “Pitch Smart” campaign catches on and rescues youth baseball players from having their arms abused.

Either way, you’re not looking at quick fixes. The Tommy John problem will not be solved overnight.

All we can really do now is lament the ones we’ve lost. And in Cobb, we’ve lost a good one.

It’s fair to say Cobb came out of nowhere. He was only a fourth-round draft pick in 2006, and at no point in his minor league career was he considered a top prospect. He also failed to impress in his first 21 major league starts between 2011 and 2012, posting a modest 4.28 ERA.

But Cobb started to gain some momentum late in 2012, posting a 3.09 ERA and striking out 57 to 17 walks in 67 innings over his final 11 starts. And though he largely did it under the radar, he rode this momentum to becoming one of the American League‘s most effective pitchers in 2013 and 2014.

As ESPN Stats & Information observed:

That ERA was no joke, either.

Between 2013 and 2014, Cobb struck out over eight and walked fewer than three batters per nine innings. He also manipulated contact well. According to FanGraphs, his 56.0 ground-ball percentage ranked second, and he was also in the AL’s top 15 at limiting hard contact.

Cobb was able to do all this mainly through his craftiness. He only threw his sinker in the 91-92 mph range, but Brooks Baseball can show how he consistently used it to flirt with the edges of the strike zone. 

That way, Cobb could set up hitters for his curveball and splitter, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of his pitches. Of the two, his splitter was especially deadly. 

“It stays in the strike zone for so long,” Cobb told Eno Sarris of FanGraphs last year. “At the point where they have to commit as a hitter, it’s still in the zone.”

Here, behold an illustration of the concept:

What you see are a lot of weak swings outside the strike zone. And more than anything, those represented the real danger of facing Cobb. Between 2013 and 2014, the only AL pitcher who got hitters to chase more than Cobb was Hisashi Iwakuma.

Such is what we’ll be missing while Cobb is away. He was quietly one of the best pitchers in the Junior Circuit over the last two-plus seasons, and he did it by generally baffling opposing hitters every which way from Sunday. Without him pitching every fifth day, the AL East isn’t going to be as much fun.

Cobb will be back, of course. Probably some time late in the 2016 season, at which point he could be a much-needed rotation boost to the latest pennant-seeking Rays team. At least they have that to look forward to.

In the meantime, we watch and wait for the next Tommy John victim. The menace has claimed many in the last couple of years, and there’s no reason to believe it’s satisfied now. For reasons we discussed earlier, the end of the Tommy John epidemic likely isn’t a matter of days or weeks or months away, but years.

All pitchers should be warned. Tommy John has come for Alex Cobb, and it could come for you, too.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.

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