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Ground balls be damned, Josh Tomlin is finding his own weird success this season

Most pitchers find success by masterfully working the corners of the strike zone or by blowing opponents away with 96+ mph fireballs. Tomlin does neither but so far it's working, anyway.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Watching Josh Tomlin pitch is always a harrowing experience. The 31-year-old starting pitcher is relentless in his attack of the strike zone, but he does not throw particularly mystifying stuff. Nothing in his repertoire is going to fool many batters, and the velocity of his fastball is not going to blow anyone away. When he is at his best, Tomlin is watching towering fly balls die in the outfield and not giving away any free bases; when at his worst, Tomlin gets shelled and Cleveland Indians fans cringe away in horror every time one of his 87 mph fastballs crosses the middle of the plate.

Since the beginning of 2015, more often than not, we have seen the good Tomlin. It has resulted in him becoming a bit of a "stopper" for the team -- he has won 12 straight starts following an Indians loss -- and he has managed to keep his earned run average under four, despite a FIP constantly telling him to regress. How in the world is he doing it?

As previously stated, Tomlin is relentless when it comes to attacking the strike zone. In his 29.0 innings this season, 49 percent of his pitches have been in the strike zone, which has him ranked 16 out of 54 qualified American League starters. Other pitchers who are this aggressive (in the 49% range) include Chris Sale and Danny Salazar. Sitting just a notch higher is Corey Kluber, with 51 percent of his pitches finding the strike zone. The common thread among those starters --  as well as most other pitchers who attack the zone often and are successful at it -- is electric stuff. Josh Tomlin does not have electric stuff.

Looking simply at fastball velocity -- a list topped by AL pitchers like Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Richards, Danny Salazar, Taijuan Walker, and Chris Archer -- Tomlin ranks 48th among qualified AL starters. Here is a full chart of some of the company Tomlin keeps at this ranking, as well as how effective his neighbors have thrown pitches in the zone, and how many swinging strikes they have induced so far this season:

Pitcher FB Velo Rank* FB Velo Zone% ERA GB% SwStr% SwStr Rank*
A.J Griffin 45 88.2 47.9% 2.94 37.9% 8.4% 37
Colby Lewis 46 87.8 44.6% 3.32 33.1% 8.4% 38
Hisashi Iwakuma 47 87.7 49.2% 4.19 45.0% 9.4% 26
Josh Tomlin 48 87.1 49.0% 3.72 39.8% 7.3% 50
Doug Fister 49 86.0 45.6% 4.54 43.1% 5.2% 54
Steven Wright 50 82.9 47.8% 1.52 43.2% 11.6% 10
Jered Weaver 51 82.5 48.3% 4.72 25.8% 8.8% 32

A couple pitchers here almost match Tomlin's bizarre pedigree. Oakland Athletics starter A.J. Griffin and the Texas Rangers' Colby Lewis both have kept their ERA down this season without exceptionally speedy fastballs and without inducing a whole lot of swinging misses. They both, however, do not go after the strike zone as nearly as much as Tomlin does, Lewis especially has only had 44.6 percent of his pitches find the zone this season.

The only pitcher who seems to fit the same mold as Tomlin (low velocity, high zone%, low GB%, low SwStr%) is Doug Fister, and he has been a mess this season.

So we know that Tomlin does not have a lightning-quick fastball, but what about if we focus on swinging strike rate and how it translates to earned runs in 2016? The idea to keep in mind here is that pitchers who cannot induce a lot of swinging misses probably induce a lot of groundballs to make up for it. That's the idea, at least.

Pitcher SwStr% Rank* SwStr% Zone% ERA GB% GB Rank*
Rick Porcello 48 7.8% 50.5% 2.95 47.6% 18
Carlos Rodon 49 7.5% 46.5% 4.36 53.2% 10
Josh Tomlin 50 7.3% 49.0% 3.72 39.8% 43
Jordan Zimmerman 51 7.0% 52.3% 1.10 43.8% 27
Mat Latos 52 6.0% 48.3% 2.62 43.6% 28
Phil Hughes 53 5.8% 52.0% 5.85 43.1% 30
Doug Fister 54 5.2% 45.6% 4.54 43.1% 31

Tomlin looks like even more of a freak when comparing his swinging strike rates to ground ball rates. Only one pitcher who induces swinging strikes in the same neighborhood as Tomlin (7.3%) is ranked below 30 among the 54 qualified AL pitchers in ground ball rates. That pitcher is our dear friend from the last table, Doug Fister, and he is dead last in swinging strike rate and -- as we already know -- has a terrible ERA.

The rest of  the pitchers in this table are pretty great at inducing ground balls so far in 2016. Carlos Rodon is inducing a crazy amount of ground balls without much success so far, but this is his first season as a starter and he is walking almost four batters per nine innings.

This all, of course, comes with a small sample size warning, Tomlin has only started in five games this season. Regardless of the sample size, the fact of the matter is that he is finding a unique kind of success early in the season. My first inclination would be to say that it is not sustainable -- sooner or later he is going to look more like Doug Fister than Colby Lewis. But, until that day comes, keep getting at least a little bit excited about Josh Tomlin starts, even if they raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels every time.

*among 54 qualified American League starting pitchers