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Putting Josh Tomlin’s awful 2018 debut in context

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You can have realistic expectations for your fifth starter, or you can keep expecting Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco to take the mound when it’s Tomlin’s turn in the rotation. It’s up to you.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There is no getting around the fact that Josh Tomlin had the worst start of his career Tuesday night in a 13-2 blowout loss to the Angels. His line at the end of the night: 3 IP, 8 H, 8 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO. Most of the damage came in the first inning, when the Angels’ lineup teed off on pretty much every pitch in his arsenal, culminating in Shohei Ohtani sending a curveball that caught the corner of the strike zone into the stands for his first career home run.

The disastrous outing was eerily reminiscent of Tomlin’s season debut a year ago, when he lasted 4.2 innings against the Diamondbacks and allowed six earned runs. He followed that up by allowing seven earned runs in 1.2 innings pitched at home against the White Sox.

Bizarrely, the Cleveland Indians’ front office did not DFA him on the walk back to dugout after either of those starts last season. He went on to make 24 more starts for the Tribe, producing respectable numbers when all was said and done.

Josh Tomlin circa 2017

Stat Josh Tomlin League Average
Stat Josh Tomlin League Average
ERA 4.98 4.15
K/9 6.96 6.47
BB/9 0.89 3.15
K/BB 7.79 2.06
HR/9 1.47 1.27
WHIP 1.28 1.36
BABIP 0.329 0.291
FIP 4.12 4.37

I don’t know about you, but to me those numbers paint the portrait of a league average pitcher who very rarely offers a free pass to first base but more often allows the batter to touch all four. And that has been the story of Josh Tomlin for as long as I can remember.

Why compare him to the league average? Because that should be the reasonable expectation for a No. 5 pitcher in a starting rotation.

Tomlin is always going to pale in comparison to Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, or even Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger. He is a 33-year-old starting pitcher with a four-seam fastball that averages below 90 mph. Tomlin relies on a mix of four different pitches and, to be successful, requires masterful control over those pitches. When he isn’t executing, it’s going to look a lot like batting practice for the opposing team, as we saw on Tuesday night.

I’m not sure how much more you can expect from a No. 5 starter.

I also wouldn’t discount the level of production that Tomlin is providing the Indians at his age. Just five 32-year-old pitchers last season notched at least 140 IP — Max Scherzer, Jeff Samardzija, Mike Fiers, Ian Kennedy, and Tomlin. Fiers and Kennedy are probably the closest comparisons to Tomlin, although Fiers has a slider in his repertoire and both at least touched 90 mph on their four-seam fastballs last season. Even with those perceived advantages, Tomlin largely outperformed them both last season.

Fiers, Kennedy, Tomlin circa 2017

Stat Mike Fiers Ian Kennedy Josh Tomlin
Stat Mike Fiers Ian Kennedy Josh Tomlin
ERA 5.22 5.38 4.98
K/9 8.57 7.66 6.96
BB/9 3.64 3.56 0.89
K/BB 2.35 2.15 7.79
HR/9 1.88 1.99 1.47
WHIP 1.43 1.32 1.28
BABIP 0.299 0.257 0.329
FIP 5.43 5.61 4.12
WAR 0.1 -0.2 2.2

And Kennedy was (and continues to be) the Royals’ No. 2 starter.

So some perspective is important when assessing Josh Tomlin’s performance. And with Ryan Merritt and Danny Salazar perhaps waiting in the wings to challenge for a spot in the rotation, who knows if Tomlin will even be holding down the back end of the rotation when all is said and done. Until then, sit back, (try to) relax, and enjoy the feast or famine.