When the 2017 season began, Jharel Cotton carried high expectations. He has not lived up to them.
Cotton (5-9, 5.72 ERA) was listed on the Opening Day roster as Oakland’s No. 3 starter. After capturing the attention of the Athletics going 2-0 with a 2.15 ERA in a five-start big-league stint last season, the 25-year-old was walloped by the Los Angeles Angels in his first start of 2017. And he has never recovered.
Only once has Cotton recorded wins in back-to-back appearances, which is one more than the occurrences in which he has posted consecutive quality starts.
Catcher Bruce Maxwell said the young righty’s inconsistency has revolved around an inability to execute and locate his pitches:
“His stuff is fine — his velo is there, the movement on his changeup is good, his cutter is fine and his curveball is good. It’s just whether or not it’s executed.”
The radar gun has supported the backstop’s theory. In his most recent start, a 6-3 loss to the Mariners Wednesday, Cotton sustained his fastball velocity around 93 through his outing — 100 pitches — and his curveball had snap. His changeup, though, spent much of the night above the intended location, including a mid-thigh floater producing a three-run, first-inning homer off the bat of Kyle Seager.
For most pitchers, Cotton’s fastball-curveball combination is good enough, on many nights, to remain competitive. But the ineffectiveness of his changeup has shaken the youngster because, as Maxwell said, that is his go-to pitch. And while his misses have created a problem, it is compounded by the fact that teams have come prepared.
“Last year, I feel like he located a little bit better on a consistent basis. … Now, (other teams) have a full year of scouting reports on him, now you can’t really make mistakes anymore.”
It’s almost as if Cotton has been stricken by the “Sophomore Slump” — in his first season.
Everything has worsened from his numbers of a short foray a year ago. A .185 batting average against last year has shot up to .265 — batting average on balls in play (BABIP) from .198 to .293. That inflation of just over 40 percent is comparable to the fall-off in use of the changeup — from 28.5 percent to 19.6, according to fangraphs, about 30 percent.
Still, Maxwell believes that a turnaround is coming and asserts that the key lies entirely in building some momentum, and with it confidence:
“Confidence is a big thing, and when his stuff is working he’s unhittable.”
Manager Bob Melvin agrees, adding that perhaps some injury setbacks have had as much to do with his starter’s lack of confidence as anything else:
“There’s still some season left. He started out real strong, some injuries have affected it and he hasn’t been able to get on a roll since he’s been back.”
Cotton understands that his changeup is key to the turnaround his team expects. The changeup fangraphs rated prior to the season as the second-most effective in baseball — behind former-Athletic Scott Kazmir. The chanegup he now calls a “work in progress.”
That progress, though, continues and Cotton said that each passing game offers something that can be used to benefit the future:
“It’s been up and down — some good starts, some bad starts. … Every game is a learning experience, I have to get better every time out.”
Looking forward, all signs lead to Cotton retaining his position in the middle of the Athletics rotation in 2018, meaning the final month-and-a-half of the hurler’s rookie campaign carries significant weight in his club’s future. A rebound of confidence, and return of his changeup, certainly brightens up Oakland’s future.