Back in early June, I wrote a piece about Josh Tomlin’s growth as a pitcher, and specifically his use of a cutter to fool batters. Here, read it. At the time he was having a very strong season -- 3.54 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and much of his 8-1 record came after the Cleveland Indians had lost a game. Some even wanted to make him an All-Star. It was neat. Since then, though, he’s been… much worse. His ERA has inflated to 4.39, his FIP a garish 5.11, and he’s the first Indian this year to eclipse 30 home runs, in the completely wrong way. What happened?
It's important to understand who we're talking about here. Tomlin has always been prone to the home run. His combination of zone pounding and lack of velocity leaves him in danger of hanging a pitch up in the zone if he isn’t super careful, and 88 with minimal movement is batting practice. That’s why that cutter was so important. All Tomlin’s other pitchers moved arm-side or down, or a combination of the two. The cutter was supposed to help with this since it moves on a different plane and in a different direction, avoiding the sweet spot. But the home run was always going to hurt Tomlin. This is far and away his worst year, though, the next closest being 24 over 165 innings in 2011.
Is Tomlin's cutter to blame?
So obviously, the home run has been a problem for Tomlin, more so than even in the past. Since June 9, his home run per fly ball ratio (HR/FB) has been 24.2 percent, up from 13.2 between the beginning of the year and his start on June 4. League average for this is about 10 percent, and Tomlin’s career rate is 13.6 percent, so it’s not like he keeps the ball in the yard, but it’s gotten pretty out of hand the last couple months. There's some idea that simply through bad luck he's given up more homers, and that home run rate has to come own.
I think there’s something about his cutter, though. Remember, up until this year he’d never thrown it more than 35 percent of the time, but in 2016 that leapt up to 42 percent. And it’s always been hittable -- in 2014 he threw it 33 percent of the time and batters hit .400 off it. This year opposing hitters are batting .336 against his cutter, and besides that, take a look at how their slugging percentage has climbed throughout the season:
He’s thrown it more as the year has worn on too:
So it could be that batters are just squaring up on the cutter more because he’s trusting it too much. This is the constant adjustment of a pitcher to defeat the batter, who then adjusts, and so on. If there's something to that, and his general pitch usage, perhaps we will see a change. He's throwing his four-seamer considerably less for the last two months (34.7%, down from 40.7%) and he's throwing more curves as well. He's got a wicked curveball, but those can hang and get banged very easily.
It doesn't matter what pitch you use if you can't locate it well
Then there’s his general location. Remember Tomlin relies on pinpoint location to get himself out of scrapes. He also relies on it to keep people off base through walks, so even if he does give up a home run it’s a solo shot. From the beginning of the year until his June 4 start he gave up ten home runs, four of which had men on base. None were more than a two-run home run. Since then he’s given up 22, which is bad, but compounding that is the grand slam and the two three-run shots. In total, eight of those 22 were worth more than one run, but those really crooked numbers hurt. All that said, he hasn’t been walking many more guys, but there’s a stark difference in the view of his strike zone profile. This is where he got the ball from April to early June:
Here's him from early June on:
To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of this. You’d think he’d get hit harder putting the ball in the middle of the zone more. At the same time, leaving the ball in that middle to away zone, down, is prime pickings for right-handed power hitters, and middle to down and in is where lefties like to club it. Either way, he’s changed how he’s attacked hitters, and he’s gotten hammered. Without knowing for sure, he could be working his way into bad counts of late -- 2-1, 3-1, whatever -- and then having to groove one of his eminently hittable fastballs. That's why he's got so much more outside the zone in the second zone map (he's thrown more balls), and could be why he's given up more runs. But that's just supposition.
Or maybe it's just bad luck
Finally, there’s this: Since early June Tomlin has faced some of the best offenses in baseball, as by weighted runs created plus (wRC+). He’s seen the Boston Red Sox (1st), the Seattle Mariners (2nd!), the Detroit Tigers (8th) twice, the Toronto Blue Jays (6th) twice, and the Baltimore Orioles (7th). Not to mention the 13th ranked Washington Nationals. That’s a hideous schedule to land on, and it makes some sense he’s gotten hit harder since I sang his praises. Luck has a lot to do with success and failure in baseball, and this has been a raw deal for Tomlin.
The reality of the situation is, Josh Tomlin is who he is. Incorporating a cutter into his repertoire is helpful, but it’s not going to turn him into one of the best pitchers on a team as stacked as the Tribe. Players have hot and cold stretches throughout the season and hit rough stretches of facing harsh competition. Tomlin is a solid enough 180 innings pitcher, and things have gone bad for him lately. Seriously, that home run rate has to drop eventually. But he's going to be what he is -- a decent fourth starter who might get lucky with the direction of ground balls. The ball will stop going over the fence quite so much at some point, and he'll get back to being his solid, unspectacular self.