When the Indians report to spring training, there’s not a whole lot that needs deciding, as is normally the case for a a contending team. There are a pair of slots in the rotation apparently up for grabs, though. The ideal would likely be that Danny Salazar stays healthy and Mike Clevinger impresses in Arizona, and they each get one. If that happens, the Indians have the best rotation in baseball... again. But others lurk in this competition. Two men, alike in style, opposite in hand, fighting for that final swingman/sixth starter/guy Francona likes having around. This battle between Ryan Merritt and Josh Tomlin is truly the position battle of our time.
It’s probably because I pay more attention the Indians than any other team, but it’s amazing how the Indians have two such similar pitchers. Others could too, I’m just not so sure. Yes, one is a lefty, one a righty, but they’re both soft-tossing guys from outside Dallas who never walk anyone. The comparisons are quite interesting:
Tomlin vs. Merritt, 2016-17
|Player||2017FB Velo (MPH)||K%||BB%||HR/FB%||Is Left-Handed|
|Player||2017FB Velo (MPH)||K%||BB%||HR/FB%||Is Left-Handed|
It’s a small sample size for Merritt in the majors — only 36 major league innings including his ALCS star. He’s sure to give up home runs sooner rather than later, but in his 807 innings in the minors he only walked 136 batters (1.5 per 9 innings), and struck out 560 (6.2/9), and gave up 69 home runs (0.8/9). Suffice to say, he’s about as close to a mirror image of Tomlin as you can get, right down to being literally reverse-handed.
The case for Tomlin
It’s nice sometimes to have a known quantity even if that known quantity, for the most part, has been below average. Tomlin has certainly had his moments — his run before Game 6 of the World Series in 2016 was briliant, and every now and again he throws something shutout-y when his ground balls go the right way and his curve is working. Since returning to the Indians from injury in 2014, he’s thrown 484 big league innings and been, well, below average.
Tomlin compared to league averages from 2014-17
This is basically what’s expected out of Tomlin. If he makes the team he’ll start in something like 25 games, give the Indains half a shot to win, and sometimes get shelled.
There is the thought, though, that he could make some kind of Rich Hill-esque transition. Tomlin’s best pitch by far is his curve ball. It’s truly killer, and he’s mastered it more and more each year. Not so much that it’s going to get him dozens of millions of dollars as a 36-year old like Hill, but he could be the crafty old man in a staff of fireballers. He’s shown this curveball heavy approach in the past — the 2016 postseason saw him throwing it nearly 40 percent of the time. It was nearly his main pitch, and highly effective in a world of fastball hunters.
Merritt, despite his stupendous control, has yet to truly find a hammer like Tomlin has. His curve is his best pitch as well, actually worth more than Tomlin’s own curve by Pitch Value/100 at 4.34 Pitching Runs in 2017 compared to Tomlin’s 0.46. But that’s hard to really glean anything from because the sample is simply too small. Tomlin is the perfect garbage pitcher; he’d be a good number four on a lot of teams, so this is a great position for him. Plus he’s cheap, which is nice.
The case for Merritt
The unknown is just so... fascinating, isn’t it? It could literally be anything. Yes, we’ve seen Merritt pitch briefly, and some who live in the vicinity of Columbus have been privy to some very good performances. In 2017 he pitched 114 innings with the Clippers, coming out with a 3.03 ERA, an 18.9 percent K rate and a 5.3 walk rate. Oddly, that lines up very closely with Tomlin’s own work as a 25-year old in Columbus — 2.68 ERA, 18.5 percent strikeout rate, 7.7 percent walk rate in 107 innings. So if the tea leaves are saying what they’re saying, basically the Indians would merely have a younger, cheaper version of Tomlin, which has some benefit. Merritt’s career still has some semblance of an upward trajectory. There’s real chance he could improve in some way, whether a velocity increase like Charlie Morton, who literally just started throwing has hard as he could and saw his velocity leap three miles per hour the last two years, cracking the code of some kind of dominant curve, or just being a crafty lefty. That last has taken a lot of pitchers a long way.
It’s probably wrong to expect too much more than we’ve seen from Merritt. But a young pitcher who has spent his entire career in one of the best organizations at developing middling talent into top flight arms has to have some impact. One major positive he’s had, and something that any soft tosser should really focus on, is his ground ball rate has always been solid, bordering on excellent. That was never Tomlin’s forte — his career rate at 39.1 and only two seasons over 40 percent. Merritt has had a grounder rate in excess of 53 percent in both his stints in the majors, and even in the minors has kept it above 40 percent every year since 2014. Tomlin’s great mark against him is that home run he’s charged every game. Now that everyone hits 20 a season, that number will only climb. Merritt is at least taking steps to mitigate that. It’s a hard thing to prove in the spring so stealing the job from Tomlin could be tough, but there’s something more than just a high 80’s fastball, a good curve and Tomlin comparisons in him.
What will probably happen
Of course they’re going with Tomlin. He’s making more money while still being incredibly cheap, Francona likes him, and he’s like another pitching coach. Ideally this decision is a moot point, but that sixth starter is often a key role in the middle of seasons. This is his last season with the Indians, so it’s nice his sinister doppelganger is waiting in the wings to pick up his mantle. Merritt would have to do something truly stupendous to make the big club. They already have two lefties in the bullpen who are both better at that job, so he’s got to toil in Columbus for a while longer. This isn’t to say there isn’t likely an opening for the younger pitcher. Whatever favoritism Francona might have, at the end of the day it’s a results business.
While there’s not a whole lot of non-injury related intrigue in Arizona for the Indians, this is one small battle to watch.