How in the hell does a baseball team decide who to draft in the 27th round? What possible factors could differentiate Ryan Cook from Timothy Matthews and Tim Kiely? All three are right-handed pitchers, and all three were selected in succession in 2008, overall draft picks 827, 828, and 829. Cook was the middle man of the bunch, and the only one who earned himself a Baseball Reference page or Wikipedia entry, let alone a day in the major leagues.
I wrote last week about the classic underdog story that is Shawn O'Malley, and the long road he overcame to reach where he is today. But O'Malley was a 5th round pick, a real prospect compared to the organizational fertilizer that most players drafted in Cook's orbit become. Opportunities come in crevices for some and wide fissures for others. For Cook, whether it was the keen eyes of current Mariner executives Jerry Dipoto and Tom Allison, or blind luck, baseball only granted the tiniest crack.
Cook is a classic power relief pitcher, in his arsenal, results, and heavily bearded, barrel-chested visage. In 2012 and 2013 Cook was one of the AL's best relief pitchers, blending a 96 mph fastball with a deadly, two-plane, mid-80's slider that eviscerated right-handers. For his career, Cook has struck out nearly four times as many righties as he has walked, holding them to a Zunino-like .241 wOBA.
But the life of a reliever is fickle by nature. Limited weapons, a dependency on maximum effort, and a small sample size can conspire to turn an all-star into a hang-on practically overnight. It was in a game against the Mariners where Cook's career began to unhinge:
Whether the injury itself or the seed of doubt it planted into his brain, Cook's fastball lost a full tick. That doesn't sound like much, and it's not, but when your success balances on a knife blade, it doesn't take very much. However, mild velocity drop does not account for the degree with which Cook struggled in 2015. It is purely speculative, but in a game that demands so much mental discipline, it's entirely possible that the things leading to Cook's downfall are the very problems that new player development head Andy McKay can fix.
Even following a disappointing year in 2014, it's difficult to imagine 2015 going much worse for Cook than it did. An injury to Sean Doolittle pressed Cook into high leverage duty early in 2015, and the results were miserable. After 4.1 disastrous innings, he was demoted to Triple-A Nashville. The Red Sox took a flyer on him at the trade deadline, only to watch him allow 14 runs while getting 13 outs in limited action down the stretch.
Last November Ryan Morrison of BP Boston wrote an excellent breakdown of where and how Cook's stuff eroded:
The main takeaway from this velocity graph is that Cook has seen his velocity sapped, somewhat. In 2012 and in 2013, Cook averaged exactly 96.22 mph release speed with his fourseam fastball, according to Brooks Baseball. In 2014 that had slipped to 95.53 mph, and in his more limited time in 2015, he averaged 94.82 mph on the pitch. That 1.4 mph drop may not seem like a big deal, but it turns out that every precious mile per hour tends to impact relievers (.54 points of ERA) a lot more than starters (.28 points of ERA).
The question for Ryan Cook, and the Mariners by extension, is can he regain his form to once again become a useful major league reliever? We can't say definitively, certainly not before we get to watch pitchers and catchers stretch on grass in Peoria. Once Cook is throwing live (dead, all baseballs are dead) balls in front of radar guns, we'll have a better idea if his song has a catchy verse.
Jerry Dipoto's first offseason with the Mariners has been the epoch for bounceback candidates, and Cook is no exception. It was eight years ago that Dipoto, or someone in his employ, saw something worth taking a chance on after 827 other players had been drafted. Today, Dipoto again is giving a chance to a generic right-hander, with a generic beard and generic name, giving him a chance to prove he is greater than the labels I cruelly affixed to him.
Ryan Cook faces long odds to be a contributing member of the 2016 Mariners bullpen. But he's faced, and overcome, longer odds in his career. He's another story, another face, and another life I am fully ready to invest in for the next nine months. He just needs to give me a reason. I can't wait to watch him try.