As the calendar turns to June, Josh Tomlin finds himself a pitcher without place. After nearly a decade of consistent if middling work in the Indians rotation, a hideous start to the season has found him relegated to the bullpen. It’s an unfamiliar role, one that you can’t help but question for the soft-tossing righty. Tomlin, for better or worse, has been a fixture for the Indians as they’ve grown over the last several seasons from scuffling bunch of young prospects to the toast of the AL Central. For much of that time he’s been as good a fifth starter as you can honestly expect, using control and craft to trick his way past the game’s best. But it couldn’t be forever, not with the game getting faster and bigger every day. You never know when your end is coming, no matter who you are. This is the fate Tomlin faces now.
It would be wrong to sit here and praise Tomlin as some sort of vital cog in greater machine that the Indians became over the last couple years. Yes, his taking pressure off the better parts of the rotation was important in surviving the marathon of the season, giving other pitchers rest and helping eat up the 1,400 or so innings each team has to get through between April and September. But his impact could have been replicated by any number of pitchers. He’s certainly talented, certainly been helpful when he was at his best. And he’s just been there, each day. This is the bite of nostalgia that baseball always hits you with when an older player starts to disappear. Whether a star or just someone you’ve watched for years, it’s that realization that time is passing the players you love by that makes it sting a little. We want players to root for, which Tomlin was. At his best he was confusingly good, making superstars whiff at 87 mph cutters and snappy little curves. At his best he was the David felling Goliath. Everyone enjoys that.
But what is his role anymore? He can’t possibly be a good relief pitcher. A baseline for that job is being able to actually throw hard, or so or else be left-handed. And that first part is only increasing with each passing year. Tomlin is neither of those things. He’s simply a pitcher who doesn’t walk people that’s become very hittable. Now that Adam Plutko has demonstrated something resembling the ability to do what Tomlin can – grind out five or six innings and give the team a chance to win – there is s certain pointlessness to the veteran. Add to that the sudden Shane Bieber emergence, and the writing is on the wall. Bieber has walk rate to rival Tomlin and, even more so than with Plutko, can at least live in the low to 90’s. These are the young guys that older fringe vets always fear. Even as we get excited for the oncoming Bieber Fever or, to a lesser extent the idea that Plutko might be something like decent, it’s Tomlin who sees his role fade, his place on the team disappear
What did happen with Tomlin though? It’s not as though is velocity has ever been world beating, or even particularly impressive:
He’s always lived in that high 80’s region, getting by on his guile and location. Has baseball just changed too much for him? Is that little smidge of velo he lost the breaking point? Hitters are so good at hitting high velocities now maybe that’s just it, the game has passed his ilk by. But then, why is Kyle Hendricks still such a good pitcher? One thing I did notice, a decided slip in his release point. In 2016 he was quite over the top with his delivery, allowing for more depth to develop in his breaking and off-speed pitches.
Compare that to this year, when he’s been eminently crushable:
This three-quarter delivery of sorts must simply not allow the same deception that allowed him to skate by in the past. Less over the top might have made his curve drop less, and any drop in his already meager strikeout rate to a career low 11.8 percent as he’s shown this year just destroys any small margin of error he had to work with.
It’s a little surprising to think of this as the end of the line for Josh Tomlin, if this is really it. But how else is he supposed to go? He’s not a particularly special player in the grander He matters to some, and maybe that’s what counts. He’s forged a special place in Indians fans’ hearts for a great 2016 postseason and some surprisingly excellently pitched games through the years and simply his ability to out-grind more talented players. He was of course going to disappear without fanfare, appearing more and more sparingly as he grew less effective and got replaced by another pitcher who can perform somewhere above replacement level.
We’re still going to see him this year – I’d be surprised if he doesn’t pitch at least another five or six starts throughout the year. But with Plutko starting to burn options, with Bieber crushing the minors to force the Tribe’s hand, the ever-lurking spectre of Danny Salazar possibly returning, an odd man out has to exist. Nobody wants to sit on the sidelines as the game, the world even, passes them by. He’s been a constant in a great ride. But not every cowboy gets their ride off into the sunset. Sometimes the movie just ends.