The MLB Draft being shortened to five rounds last summer meant several hundred players were available as free agents. One of those was 23-year-old southpaw Scott Kobos, who began his college career as an outfielder before his arm and bat dictated a move to the mound. When you consider his baseball journey, it’s really pretty impressive that the Cubs were able to find him at all.
The Charlotte native never pitched in high school and was only converted to the mound after his coach at St. Johns River State College took note of his strong outfield arm. An avulsion fracture in his pitching elbow forced Kobos to redshirt his first season at Coastal Carolina, then a back injury further hampered his next season. Finally at full strength as a senior, his season was limited to just five appearances by the pandemic.
That limited exposure appears to be working in the Cubs’ favor, since it also means Kobos wasn’t as sought-after as he might otherwise have been. He also has very little mileage on that left arm and, as fellow North Carolinian Michael Jordan would say, his ceiling is the roof.
Kobos was initially assigned to Low-A Myrtle Beach, with which he was very familiar from his college days. He didn’t last long, though, making eight scoreless appearances and striking out 19 with just four walks in 11 innings. A promotion followed and his performance has leveled up as well. Over four games in a South Bend uniform, the southpaw has allowed no runs on three hits while striking out 11 with three walks over 6.2 innings.
And he’s doing it all while being less cerebral than he was in the past, which might sound counterintuitive for someone who boasts a physics degree with an engineering emphasis. Upon finishing out his studies, Kobos headed home to work with Rob Zeigler, director of operations and throwing performance at X2’s Baseball‘s Concord, NC location.
For those who may not be familiar, X2 is owned by two-time former Cubs prospect Luke Hagerty and follows many of the same principles espoused by Driveline. South Bend starter Max Bain worked out at X2’s original location in Scottsdale, AZ, so there’s a kinship on the staff between the two that goes beyond just being teammates.
Just how long either of them will remain in South Bend is an open question because both are flashing big potential. Kobos in particular is looking like a lockdown reliever as a result of the work he put in this winter, most of which had nothing to do with mechanics.
“We eventually got to a phase where I was doing 40 pulldowns a day,” he told Cubs Insider recently. “Moving that fast was like, ‘Hey, we’re going to force your body into whatever position it has to be in to move as fast as it can and throw as hard as you can, and let the speed and intent sort everything else out.’ We only talked about one mechanical cue, and that was really just shoulder tilt.
“Other than that, it was just pick it up and throw as hard as you can and your body’s going to tell you what it needs to do.”
It’s easy to get caught up in all the data and analytics and, while Kobos is still very much aware of all that, prioritizing braun over brains can streamline things a bit. Whether you’re working on hitting or pitching, the goal is to establish a feel for your body and to learn how it needs to move.
“I used to get really analytical…and I kinda backed away from thinking about it so much,” the Just focusing on being fast and trying to go as hard as I can, I ended up cleaning up almost every single thing that me and my pitching coach talked about at Coastal Carolina. We just got to the same destination with a different route.”
Kobos knows a little something about taking a different route, whether it’s the conversion to pitching or struggling through injuries in college. The same was true early on in his professional days, as the pandemic had one more bump in store for him even after the shutdown.
“The routine is nice,” Kobos said of getting settled in South Bend. “The one thing I really like through having a really weird ramp-up period…like I got hot getting ready for spring training, then caught COVID so I shut down. Then I got hot again at home and had to get shut down again to get cleared for heart stuff just to be safe, and then I ramped up to come back so it’s kind of shuffled me into a bullpen role. I was going to be a starter, but that’s not going to happen with a weird ramp-up.
“One thing that’s helped me is the consistency of getting off the mound usually every third day…helps clean stuff up a lot. I also just love coming out of the ‘pen. It’s a different mindset, I’m a different animal out of the ‘pen versus starting. It’s all a mental thing.”
Kobos with some high cheese at 95 pic.twitter.com/AzoiGPMFrt
— Todd ⚾️🐻 (@CubsCentral08) June 13, 2021
A lot of starting pitchers who transition to a bullpen role for whatever reason really get to let their fastball eat because they know they don’t need to save anything for the later innings. That’s been true for Kobos, but he’s been careful to keep working diligently on both the change and breaking stuff.
“My first outing, I averaged 95.7 on my fastball, I was feeling great, I could just blow it by everybody,” Kobos explained. [Not 96, but 95.7?] “Well, I hit 96.4, but the average overall. It’s great to be able to control the fastball, but I’m not going to be able to throw that hard forever. I’m throwing breaking balls more because I need to throw them if I want to be successful at the next levels.
Scott Kobos He’s getting much better with his curve at South Bend. pic.twitter.com/aHBv0RVJFH
— Todd ⚾️🐻 (@CubsCentral08) June 9, 2021
“In Myrtle Beach, the changeup was a lot better than the slider because I just didn’t have the feel for it from getting up and down. I just didn’t have time to focus on the breaking ball, but now that I’ve gotten here I’ve hit that stride where I can feel myself really getting out in front, ripping it off, and being able to spot it where I want.
“It’s really good to have a complete outing where I’ve got my control, which is nice, got the slider coming along, changeup’s still there. It’s good to paint a full picture of pitchability.”
Now, about that changeup…it’s kind of a Frankenpitch. We hear about the circle-change, the palmball, the three-finger, the Vulcan grip, and many more. But Kobos employs a modified circle-knuckle grip in which he kind of spikes his index finger to keep it out of the action. The picture below isn’t great, so continue on for a better explanation.
— Evan Altman (@DEvanAltman) June 13, 2021
“It would be closest to a circle change, but I kinda spike my index finger knuckle because I used to have a really big problem at Coastal of cutting my changeup and getting around it,” Kobos described. “One thing I had to do was mostly hand speed, where I just let it rip like a fastball and then the grip takes care of itself. So when I throw it, and this is why I can’t throw a knuckle-curve, my index finger will extend a little bit and push the ball more toward my fingertips and it’s pretty much coming off of the middle and ring fingers.
“It gets really good spin and has some great sink to it and the Cubs really like it, I really like it when it’s a strike…That knuckle-change grip was the way I could get that consistent spin. It’s gross, but it works. I had to learn to rein it in to throw strikes because I can get great movement, but not necessarily for strikes. Now it’s becoming a very useful pitch.”
Okay, we’re looking at a lefty reliever who is very intelligent in both the classroom on the mound with mid-90’s velo and three very good pitches. He’s dominated at two levels so far, but pitchers are perfectionists so there’s got to be something Kobos needs to work on.
“The walks,” he said without hesitation. “I haven’t walked a lot, but I’d rather take a Razor scooter to the shin than walk a guy. It’s like a slap in the face: ‘You did this!’ I can handle getting beat by a professional hitter, ‘You got a barrel on the ball, good for you.’ But beating myself is something I just don’t accept, I hate it.”
Just like he did over the offseason, there’s really not much for Kobos to think about at this point. He says he’s at an advance age for a first-year pro, but he’s actually just a little below the average for High-A and the gap is much greater if you factor in his lack of experience as a pitcher. That’s why he’s not in a hurry, nor are the Cubs.
Of course, the organization could very well press fast-forward if the results keep coming.
“If everything can be consistent with your routine, your results will be consistent. I’d much rather be consistently pretty good than great one day and atrocious the next.
“I think the Cubs are just gonna kinda let me do my thing. Although I’m “old” by first-professional-year standards, it’s like they feel they don’t need to touch too much if it’s working. I hate to sound too cocky, but we don’t need to do too much right now.”
Ed. note: In addition to being a pitcher who will probably start making some noise on organizational lists here soon, Kobos is one of the nicest dudes you’ll ever meet. And not like fake-nice, which can certainly be a thing. Cubs fans should really be excited about what he will do over the next few years. Also, I clearly failed to get a decent picture the other day.