Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Getting to Know Astros/Hooks LHP Chris Cotton

When lefty reliever Chris Cotton was promoted to Lancaster at the end of the year in 2014, he made quite the impression. The problem was that it wasn't a very good impression. In three appearances (2.2 innings), he compiled a 16.88 ERA and a 2.250 WHIP. He allowed three home runs, one in each of those three appearances, which was one more home run than he had allowed in 32 appearances for Quad Cities prior to the promotion.

Fast forward to the 2015 season. Chris Cotton started the season back in Lancaster, but it didn't take him long to prove that he had what it takes to conquer The Hangar. In 13 appearances for Lancaster (25.2 innings), he had a 1.40 ERA and a 1.052 WHIP with four saves, earning him a promotion to Corpus Christi on May 22nd.

Chris Cotton - May 2015
Photo by Jayne Hansen

I spoke with Lancaster Pitching Coach Don Alexander about Cotton back in May. Alexander said, "He's been the big surprise for me. This is not a secret ... last year he struggled up here. But this year, he came into camp, and you can't always judge from Spring Training, but I saw some better stuff. I saw more aggressiveness. He got here and he's been nails. Nice mix of pitches. The stuff has tightened up; it's sharpened up. He's throwing the ball a little harder. The breaking ball against left-hand hitters has been devastating. And the changeup has become a real good weapon for him against right-hand hitters."

Alexander knows from experience that The Hangar's reputation as a very hitter-friendly ballpark can sometimes get into pitchers' heads and, although that may have been a factor in 2014 for Cotton, Alexander was extremely impressed by how Cotton put that rough start behind him, citing his overall aggressiveness and approach this season. "He did real good work here for us at the back end of games and I expect the same thing (in Corpus Christi) from what I've seen here."

And Cotton has done nicely since his promotion to AA. In 17 games (22.0 innings), he has a 2.05 ERA and a 0.909 WHIP and is 2-0 with three saves. I caught up with him last week to learn more about this lefty reliever who has climbed the depth charts with the recent trade of fellow lefty reliever Mitch Lambson.

First a little background on Cotton. Louisiana born and bred, Cotton grew up "bleeding purple and gold." His whole family went to LSU and he had his heart set on going there himself. Out of high school, he had a JuCo offer. He visited the school, but he knew he wouldn't be happy anywhere but at LSU so he started classes in Baton Rouge, setting aside his baseball career for the time being. About a month into the semester, Cotton got the word that the baseball team would be having walk-on tryouts so he went. According to Cotton, "They had no idea who I was ... little lefty throwing strikes." But they invited him back.

And Cotton persevered. He kept coming back for three or four months, throwing in intersquad games. He didn't work out with the team. He just kept showing up. "They didn't tell me I made the team until about a week before the season started. It was a great thing, growing up an LSU Tiger fan," said Cotton. He had his doubts at times, but his parents told him that he would make it and they were right.

Drafted out of LSU in the 14th round in 2013, Cotton is now in his third season with the Astros. He throws a fastball that sits 87 to 91 and hits 92, a changeup and a breaking ball that has morphed into a slider, more or less. I asked him what people should expect to see of him when he takes the mound. Cotton said, "A lot of offspeed. I'm just going to mix that in and then try to get (the hitters) off balance with my fastball. I like to be out there for as little as possible because if I'm out there for a short amount of time, I'm doing my job. I'm getting outs. If I'm out there long, then I'm having a bad day."

Coming in to the 2015 season, Cotton put that rough 2014 introduction to Lancaster behind him. "I kind of knew what to expect. Keep the ball down and get ahead. Throw strikes and mix in my offspeed more. And that's what I did. I think that's why I was successful ... getting ahead and keeping the ball down. If you can do that at Lancaster and not give up too many runs, then I feel like that (translates) to AA. Hitters are a little better (in AA). Strike zone's a little smaller. But I feel like if you can just get ahead and throw strikes and mix in offspeed, then you can be successful. That's what I've been doing and, actually, it keeps working," said Cotton.

As to what he feels he needs to work on, Cotton told me, "Right now, it would be maybe keeping the ball down even more. Hitting my spots with my fastball every time. If I can do that, it will help me even more to get ahead so I can go to my breaking ball or go to my changeup."

I asked Cotton who in the Astros system has a pitch he would like to steal. He replied, "I'd have to go with The Dragon, Chris Devenski ... his changeup. (My) changeup's my best pitch, but compared to his, it's nothing. He throws it any time he wants and people don't hit it. He's obviously right-handed, but if I could turn it into a left-handed changeup, that's a pitch I wouldn't mind having. And you could also say (Jandel) Gustave's 100 mph fastball. I wouldn't mind having that either."

As to what Astros hitter he'd least like to face, at first Cotton told me Tony Kemp, but he changed that to another player recently promoted to AAA Fresno. "No, Tyler White. I'm going to go with Tyler White. Right now, he's been seeing the ball extremely well and he's a good hitter. Just all around. He gets on base. He takes pitches that are balls. And he hits pitches that are strikes. And that's what you want to do as a hitter. He did well here. And what's he hitting (at Fresno)? Four-something in Triple A? That's not a coincidence. I faced him in Spring Training. I think he's two-for-two off me and I just can't seem to get the guy out," said Cotton. Cotton went on to point out that White has a great story as well, having that kind of success as a 33rd round pick.

As one of my final questions, I asked Cotton if he could tell me something about himself that most people don't know and might be surprised to hear. His initial response showed me that Cotton is more than capable of laughing at himself. Generously listed at 5'10" in Baseball-Reference, Cotton initially responded, "That I can dunk." Then he laughed and continued, "I'm kidding. That's a lie. That's a complete lie. I'd be surprised to see that myself. No, I can't dunk."

It turns out, however, that he has something in common with teammate A.J. Reed. "My hobbies include ping pong. I'm a big ping pong player. That's my go-to sport. I might be a better ping pong player than baseball player." Reed told me much the same when I interviewed him in May. I'm expecting an epic showdown one of these days and Cotton promised to give me the scoop when it happens.

Cotton learned a lesson at LSU and again at The Hangar a few years later. It's a lesson he's still embracing. Just keep showing up and keep throwing strikes. Brush off the failures and just keep plugging along. As long as you keep showing up, you've got a chance. In life and in baseball.

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