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On Josh Tomlin and the perception of grit

Josh Tomlin digs down deep to succeed in baseball. Grit or whatever you want to call it, how should we consider it?

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin is having a career year to this point in the season. Despite his shortfall in the realm of velocity, he’s found himself a firm position in what many consider the best pitching rotation in the American League, with good reason.

I detailed some weeks back the introduction and evolution of a cutter to his repertoire and how he is using it to great effect this season. But this isn’t about the movement of Josh Tomlin’s cutter or the drop on his curveball or his accuracy so fine as to knock angels off the heads of pins. What gains more praise from announcers like Rick Manning and Tom Hamilton, not to mention the occasional national media man that finds themselves suddenly in Cleveland on a summer evening, is Tomlin’s grittiness, as they choose to name it.

To many fans, especially the more sabermetrically inclined, this is just talk, empty words to fill three hours of a broadcast and to reach across to the more casual fan, or to explain why Tomlin is having the success he is this year. Grit, gumption, resolve, whatever you want to call it, is inescapable in the world of baseball. If it’s why Tomlin is more successful than Mitch Talbot ever was despite their both being low velocity, contact-heavy control pitchers, perhaps there’s a place for its consideration.

To be gritty is not a precursor to success

To be gritty is not a precursor to success, nor is it even necessary. When one thinks of the 2009 New York Yankees and their easily forecastable drive to the championship, it’s hard to place the title of "dirtbag" on the likes of Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez or CC Sabathia. Their most prominent player, the face of the franchise and even baseball was Derek Jeter, who even at a position often populated by the most grungy of players, had a sleek, tidy professionalism to him. There’s nothing gritty to those Yankees, they simply blasted their way through the league and made it look easy.

The same couldn’t be said for their late '90s dynasty. Perhaps it was the last vestiges of moustaches fluttering around the clubhouse that took a couple years to shake off, perhaps it was Paul O’Neill’s ability to run into walls time and again and still lace baseballs around Ruth’s House, perhaps it was just that it was a team that had clawed its way back from a decade of middling success without the required championships the Boss and the City so demanded. But there was something harder, less varnished about those guys.

At the same time, we throw words at teams to describe their play that are completely at odds with each other. When we think of the reigning champion Kansas City Royals, their grit screams at us. It was all anyone ever talked about, their grinding at-bats and putting the ball in play and doing all the old school things the players in grainy videos from the ‘50s did. They played defense, they hustled, they legged out infield hits and ran the bases well. Gritty stuff, getting dirty and taking all you can get. And yet, they’re a finesse team too, right?

This is another one, and it shows the two-sidedness of baseball. You can be gritty, yet you can show finesse, which is if anything the opposite of getting down and dirty. It’s doing the things perfectly so you DON’T get dirty. For Tomlin, this means avoiding hard contact, not walking anyone, pounding the zone and trusting his defense. The home runs he gives up aren’t crooked numbers, by and large. Is grit doing the right thing, playing baseball fundamentally soundly? David Eckstein made a career for himself by doing just this.

Eckstein is perhaps the posterchild for the gritty baseball player. Like Tomlin, though a position player, he was not blessed with the physical gifts that his teammates had and made a name for himself with those buzzwords hustle and grit and scrappiness. It got carried so far that Beyond the Box Score writer Jen Mac Ramos created the stat SCRAP, as detailed here.

What was supposed to be unquantifiable, became numbered, and it revealed… something, for sure. Eckstein rode his SCRAPpiness to a World Series MVP when he went 8-for-22 with three doubles in 2006 with the CSt. Louis Cardinals. Nevermind that Scott Rolen had a 1.218 OPS or Albert Pujols winning game one or Jeff Weaver pitching out of his mind for a couple games, Eckstein was 6-for-9 in the last two games and had a key RBI groundout. While that may sound sarcastic, the man punched his way to a world championship and was a key part of it, and even if he was surrounded by much better players on the whole, in the moment he was on their level. Maybe he had to work harder, maybe he was just lucky, but the end result was all that mattered in that moment. When you’re a grit-powered player, that’s all we care about. The rates, the strikeouts, the home runs, it’s hard to wrap one’s head around it, but the win is all that matters.

We don’t root for the numbers either, do we? Perhaps when it’s something monumental, like a Triple Crown or 3000 hits, something historic that captures the imagination. But the most exciting games are the gutty ones, where the player digs down deep to show who they truly are.

Madison Bumgarner coming out of the bullpen for five innings in Game Seven of the 2014 World Series springs immediately to mind. Common sense tells us he should have had a melted arm rather than that vulcanized rubber cannon he displayed that day. The same could be said for Randy Johnson, taking the mound to silence the Yankees in 2001’s final game, and starting Bernie Williams off with a furious 100 mile per hour fastball to set the tone. Both those men were facing two opponents - the other team for a title, and their own physical limitations. That’s what makes Tomlin so intriguing. He fights his own inability in addition to the other team every night out. It would certainly be nice for him to be able to throw 95, but he has a mental acuity at least to be able to compete in this double game of his.

If Josh Tomlin is gritty, though, what does this say for his rotation-mates? Is it just that, since he isn’t blessed with the killer Kluber curve or Salazar’s fireballs or Carrasco’s all-around brilliance, he’s made to dig that deep time and again while his teammates can just coast now and again? There have certainly been times where we could make judgements one way or the other for any Tribe pitcher.

Just this past Sunday, a blown third strike call in the second inning ultimately led to Carrasco not lasting through the fourth because he had to work so hard, but what is this a sign of, other than bad luck with a couple pitches and batted balls? We have seen him come out and mow down division rivals this year and put the Indians in a position to seize control of the division. Danny Salazar creates his own bad situations by walking nearly 11 percent of batters he faces, seemingly always in or near hot water, yet he pitches out of it and is a front runner to win a Cy Young this year. It would seem weird and downright silly to place the "Gritty" label as praise on a man who is his own worst enemy.

Tomlin’s teammates simply haven’t had the chance to demonstrate, because their own ability precludes their having to face the fire. That’s not their fault, if anything it’s a good thing. It lets fans dream of a time when they do have to when the nights are colder and the games are tighter. Even if he’s just a role model for them, he serves a purpose in the regular season and could indirectly be the man to help the Indians over the hump.

It could be that Josh Tomlin has dug too deep too early this year, and may collapse. Or perhaps this is the year that will truly prove his mettle, and he will cross that 200 innings threshold with 18 or 20 wins and have a pitching line every bit like a star of the 1950’s would have. He has been an unlikely rock for the Indians though and entertaining besides. While I’d rather the easygoing firebreather most nights, having this gritty underdog once every five days at least makes for more exciting viewing. The man works hard, and even if that part of his game can’t be quantified, it’s at least deserving of respect.