Whether you want to blame it on injuries, short-term ineffectiveness, or the inaction of the offseason, there’s no way to escape the plain and simple fact that the Cleveland Indians have holes right now. Some are complicated to fix without making big trades (which the team is understandably unwilling to do in May), but others have a pretty simply solution.
One of those in the latter category involves Josh Tomlin and his current position as Captain of the S.S. Struggle Bus, and the Indians are finally addressing it.
Tomlin, who for years has been a dependable number five starter if nothing else, just isn’t getting it done, even if his only expectation is to eat up some innings at the back end of the rotation. His ERA is 7.84 and his FIP is 9.14 — at this point you don’t even have to look at his peripherals to see just how bad he’s been through six starts this season. But if you did take a peek, you’d see a career-low strikeout rate (12.2 percent), a career-high home-run-to-fly-ball ratio (24.6), a career-low ground-ball rate (26.4 percent), and an astonishing 4.35 home runs per nine innings. Even for Tomlin — who is known to give up a lot of home runs — that is really, really bad.
The Indians have finally had enough, and he’s being shifted to the bullpen for Adam Plutko later this week. It’ll require a move to get him back on the 25-man roster, which I’m sure we’ll find out the details of on Wednesday. Is this a permanent thing? We don’t know yet, but it’s a step in the right direction for fixing one of the Indians’ most glaring holes.
Tomlin is by all accounts a great guy, and what he did stepping up in the 2016 postseason is the stuff of legends, but it’s clearly time for him to take a breather and pitch out of the bullpen, even if it’s just in the short-term. Maybe he can rip off another month or great starts like he’s done in the past, but the Indians can’t wait around for it to happen forever.
Enter Adam Plutko, a 26-year-old fringey prospect who made a solid 7.1-inning spot start against the Toronto Blue Jays earlier this season. He held the jays to three earned runs off six hits and more importantly gave the bullpen a much-needed break in the midst of a double-header.
Now, it’s worth noting that Plutko’s three earned runs were all off home runs, an eerily similar box score to a good Josh Tomlin outing. But that’s exactly what Plutko can be — a good Josh Tomlin. Like Tomlin, Plutko works in the strikezone a lot, but he doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts and he gives up his fair share of home runs. For instance, his best season came with the Double-A Akron RubberDucks when he started 13 games, struck out 7.91 batters, walked 1.51 batters, and gave up 0.63 home runs per nine innings. A pretty Josh Tomlin-like line, if Josh Tomlin brought his A-game each and every night. Plutko struggled in 2016 and 2017, however, with a 4.72 ERA and 4.34 FIP in 50 minor-league starts.
After hip surgery in October, 2018 has been a bit of a renaissance for Plutko. He’s back to his “Josh Tomlin, but if he was really good all the time numbers” in Triple-A, sporting a 2.25 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and a 15.5 percent strikeout-to-walk ratio through seven starts. It was enough to earn him the spot start and now potentially a chance to win the number five spot outright. He’s essentially racing to earn the spot before Ryan Merritt and/or Danny Salazar return from injuries, or Josh Tomlin does something miraculous to warrant giving him another shot before either of them return.
I have my doubts about Tomlin actually being effective in the bullpen — he’s not great the first time through the lineup and I don’t trust him with a single runner on base — but Terry Francona is making the correct (and probably difficult given Tomlin’s Good Guy status) decision to make a change in the rotation. For the good of everyone, let’s hope it works.