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What is behind the struggles of Athletics starter Jharel Cotton?

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Jharel Cotton (45) reacts after walking Chicago White Sox second baseman Yolmer Sanchez (5) during the game between the Oakland Athletics and the Chicago White Sox on June 23, 2017 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)

Jharel Cotton caught the attention of fans looking for sleepers for the 2017 season after he posted a 2.15 ERA in five September starts last year for the Oakland Athletics as a 24-year-old. Thus far, Cotton’s 2017 season hasn’t lived up to the standards he set last September. In 14 starts, the A’s rookie has a 5.17 ERA. Was Cotton’s September performance last season a mirage, or should fans expect him to develop into an above-average big-league pitcher over time?

First, a little background on Cotton. The Los Angeles Dodgers selected him out of East Carolina University in the 20th round of the 2012 MLB Draft. The native of the U.S. Virgin Islands racked up impressive strike-out totals early in his pro career, raising his profile within the Dodgers’ organization. By 2016, Cotton was one of the Dodgers’ best starting pitching prospects. At the July trade deadline, he was leading the Pacific Coast League in strikeouts when the A’s acquired him and two other pitching prospects in a deal that sent Rich Hill and Josh Reddick to L.A.

After six post-trade starts with Triple-A Nashville, during which he posted a 2.82 ERA, Cotton earned a September call-up with Oakland. He made five starts with the A’s, allowing exactly one earned run in each of his first four starts before allowing three earned runs in 4.1 innings in his final start of the season. Cotton entered the 2017 regular season as an early candidate for AL Rookie of the Year.

As often happens with young pitchers, Cotton hasn’t found the same level of success his second time through the big leagues. In 14 starts this season, he has allowed three runs or fewer in only eight of them. Cotton has a 1.40 WHIP, and he is allowing 1.5 homers per nine innings. His up-and-down 2017 season includes a two-week stint in Triple-A and, most recently, a blister on his right thumb that has limited him over the past few weeks. He is currently on the A’s 10-day disabled list, although he is expected to return shortly after the All-Star break.

So what has caused Cotton’s struggles this season? With the exception of the blister, Cotton has been healthy and is throwing, on average, slightly harder than he did last season. However, Cotton’s location hasn’t been consistently good enough to dominate big-league hitters.

Cotton is a five-pitch pitcher – four-seam fastball, sinker, cut fastball, changeup and curveball. His average velocities on all five pitches have remained nearly identical to his averages last season, so he isn’t suffering from apparent arm fatigue. However, his pitches have been hit harder than they were last year, and his pitch selection has changed, as well.

Cotton’s best pitch is his changeup, but, according to FanGraphs, he has thrown it only 17.7 percent of the time, and it hasn’t been as effective this season as it has been in the past. Last September, Cotton threw his change-up 28.5 percent of the time, and hitters batted .032 against it. This season, batters are hitting .250 against the changeup.

According to Oakland A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson, the blister has prevented Cotton from using his changeup as often in recent weeks. Emerson said that for Cotton make significant strides, he needs to recover completely from the blister issue.

“We need to have the blister fully healthy. It’s hard enough pitching in the big leagues, and the blister has been an issue he has been dealing with,” Emerson said. “His changeup is a big part of his game, and he has had limited usage of it over his last several starts due to the blister. So getting that resolved is key.”

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Jharel Cotton (45) pitches the ball to Chicago White Sox during the game between the Oakland Athletics and the Chicago White Sox on June 23, 2017 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)

Cotton is also throwing his four-seam fastball less frequently (39.5 percent in 2016 compared to 28.1 percent this season), and hitters have seen a 60-point jump in their average against Cotton’s four-seamer. Interestingly, Cotton is throwing his four-seamer for strikes much more frequently this season, which is an indication that he is catching too much of the plate with the pitch, given how well it has been hit.

Cotton has significantly increased the usage of his cut fastball (28.4 percent this season compared to 16.4 percent last season), his sinker (16.4 percent this season compared to 8 percent last season) and his curveball (9.3 percent this year compared to 7.5 percent last season). Although thrown with the least frequency, Cotton’s curveball has been his most effective pitch this season by far. Hitters are batting just .167 against it.

Location both inside and outside the strike zone has been an issue for Cotton all season. Cotton’s strikeout rate is even better than it was last season (up to 7.9 from 7.1), but his walk rate is also up – and up significantly – from 1.2 BB/9 last year to 3.8 this year. Cotton’s strike percentage (in terms of pitches thrown in a game) is down 4 percent from 66 percent in September last season to 62 percent.

While Cotton isn’t likely to match his 2016 big league walk rate moving forward, his history indicates he should be walking a lot fewer batters. Cotton’s minor league walk rate for his career is 2.57, and in Triple-A it is 2.44.

Major league batters have had a much more disciplined approach against Cotton this season. According to FanGraphs, batters swung at 35 percent of pitches Cotton threw outside the strike zone last year, but are swinging at just 28.3 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone this season. Cotton’s overall swing percentage is also down from 51.8 percent to 46.2 percent, suggesting that hitters are waiting him out more.

Hitters are also getting better swings on pitches outside of the strike zone, making contact on those pitches at a 67.6 percent rate (up from 59.7 percent last season), another suggestion that many of his misses haven’t been pitcher’s pitches.

There is a big difference between the command a pitcher can get away with at the Triple-A level and the command a pitcher needs to succeed in the big leagues. Cotton isn’t the first pitcher to learn that his location needs to take another leap forward in the big leagues, and he won’t be the last.

Emerson said that once Cotton is past the blister issue, fastball command will be a focus. He says Cotton has shown that he can command his fastball and throw a plus changeup when he has been healthy.

“Fastball command is always, in my opinion, the most important thing for a big-league pitcher. It’s not how often you throw it, but when you do, you need to hit your spots,” Emerson said.

That Cotton is striking out nearly eight batters per nine innings through the first 106 innings of his big-league career is a strong indication that he has the talent to be successful at the big-league level. As he learns to locate his pitches more precisely and starts to use his changeup more frequently once again, Cotton’s results should reflect his talent.

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