Amid all the upheaval in the Cleveland Indians rotation this season, Josh Tomlin has been the picture of consistency. As Corey Kluber fought to find himself, as Carlos Carrasco was lost to injury, as Trevor Bauer drifted to the bullpen and back, as Cody Anderson turned to a garbage man in April, and Mike Clevinger had a cup of coffee, Tomlin has trotted out every fifth day and given 85 or so pitches worth of solid, unspectacular work.
It’s led to strong old school numbers, 8-1 record, 3.54 ERA and 1.098 WHIP. The advanced numbers are a bit scarier, 4.22 SIERA among them, but at this point in his career, that’s expected from Tomlin. He doesn’t get strikeouts, but he doesn’t walk anyone either, and he gives up a good number of homers due to lack of any epic pitch in his arsenal. So most assume those traditional numbers are just an outlier, and he’ll regress to be the middling sixth starter we’ve grown used to. But maybe not. Some rooting into what he’s been doing on the mound this year suggests Tomlin has made subtle adjustments to his style, and could well maintain something like what we’ve seen so far this year.
There isn’t a lot to Tomlin’s stuff -- he gets by on location and guile because he can’t blow you away or make you flail at a darting slider. The four-seam sits in the high 80’s, change a bit less. It’s all just tight movement. In the past, I’ve called him a homeless man’s Greg Maddux. It’s mostly four-seamers, changeups, and sinkers. He works the corners, tries to expand the zone, gets a bunch of fly outs that sometimes get over the wall, and hopes to limit damage by not allowing free passes. It’s a very 1950’s way of doing things. The problem being, back then only like three guys could hit a ball a quarter mile. That number has metastasized, and the Tomlin template is less workable these days.
Josh Tomlin is finding his own weird success
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.
People grow, though, and 2016 is showing Tomlin understanding he needed something new. He’s been featuring his cut fastball considerably more this year, throwing it 40 percent of the time compared to 27.4 percent last year and 30.8 percent the year prior. He’s even throwing it more than his four-seamer, which is used about 37 percent of the time according to Brook's Baseball. Prior to this year, the general movement and planes for the majority of his pitches worked on have been down and breaking towards the right-handed batter’s box. His curveball heads toward the lefties but it only goes 75 to 76 mph, 10 or 12 ticks slower than his other pitches. Not to say this is instantly obvious to hitters, but comparatively, it’s a big window for a major leaguer and allows for quicker reactions. For the most part, he operated on similar planes, in a similar velocity window
With the cutter, he’s staying in that four-seamer/sinker/change velocity window, but using the cutter’s running toward leftie’s movement to throw hitters off. By mixing it in considerably more, essentially just as much as his four-seamer which moves slightly toward righties, the hitter is suddenly on his heels a bit more, not as easily able to see what’s coming and square up, getting the ball off the sweet spot of the bat. The hitter knows where to swing, but suddenly, the ball is a few inches in the wrong place. Typically this would induce less exacting contact if not less hard contact, which could be a good reason for his uptick in ground ball rate -- 40.9 percent of batted balls this year compared to 37.5 percent the last two years. Batters are making more "Hard Contact" according to Fangraphs, a career high 36.3 percent of batted balls rated that way, but he’s also below his career average of Line Drive Rate, 20.7% as opposed to 21.7 for his career. So while more balls are being struck, less are headed laser-like toward the outfield.
More ground balls can lead to more leaking hits, but it also gives an improved Indians defense a chance to make a play on it. Most would rather the grounder since it's chance of getting over the fence is roughly impossible. Whether it’s Lindor dazzling, Uribe making all of the plays he should or Kipnis being solid if unspectacular, this is the best infield defense we’ve seen out of the Indians since the days of Omar Vizquel. It’s a luxury that few pitchers in the league have, and Tomlin seems to be taking advantage of it. In doing so he's keeping players off the base, runs off the board and even a double play or two. Tomlin has yet to force one of those this year, perhaps that's a function of his walking very few and so many hard hit balls so guys get to second. But he's usually stranding them at least.
There’s a good chance that even if he keeps it all up, there will come a game or two where those not so fastballs end up on the other side of the fence a few too many times, inflating his ERA. But in throwing the cutter more, Tomlin has gained an edge he didn’t have before and can be more than just the sixth man in a rotation. I don’t want to see him come out of the bullpen like he did a couple times last year, but as the fourth or fifth guy, it’s not bad at all.
More than ever, he’s essentially doing what Bartolo Colon is doing for the New York Mets anyway, just throwing one pitch within a five or six mile per hour window and having it cut, sink, dive or just wander in without any movement at all. It’s worked the last couple years for Big Bart, and there’s a good chance Tomlin can eat 180 or so innings this year, giving the team a chance to win every time out. His location and craftiness will serve him well.