Trying to Make Sense of Josh Tomlin

 

            Josh Tomlin pitched well enough in about a third of a season last year to earn himself a spot in the Cleveland Indians rotation. He is a tough pitcher to figure out this year. If the Indians want to win AL Central, Tomlin will have to continue to give his team a chance.

In 2015, Tomlin’s 3.02 ERA was not supported by his 4.43 FIP, however both his xFIP and SIERA pointed towards a better fate than FIP. Tomlin got lucky last year with a .199 batting average on balls in play and a left on base percentage just over 90%. The good news was that he managed to get a decent number of whiffs (9.4 SwStr%) leading to a 7.81 K/9. Moreover, Tomlin’s control was superb as he finished with the second best walk rate among starters with at least 60 innings pitched.

Fast forward to July 9th, 2016, Tomlin might be a ticking time bomb. On the surface, his 3.51 ERA is good. Looking deeper, Tomlin will be in trouble soon. Before his blow-up against the Tigers, Tomlin had a more sparkling 3.21 ERA.

Tomlin’s peripheral stats don’t look good. The walk rate is even better. Tomlin’s walks per nine innings is the 14th best since 1973 (Fun Fact: Kershaw’s 0.67 BB/9 is the 3rd best). Aside from that, the picture looks grim. The decline in swinging strikes has led to a decline in overall strikeouts.

He has always struggled with keeping the ball in the park. With a career 13% HR/FB as a starter as well as a 1.51 HR/9, Tomlin is consistently at risk to blow up each game with one swing of the bat. Moreover, with home run rates reaching levels close to the steroid era (1.17 HR/9 this year), his home run troubles are likely to continue.

Tomlin also doesn’t have much velocity. He is averaging 88.56 MPH on his fastball this year. Due to his throwing motion, Tomlin’s perceived velocity hovers at 87.51 MPH, a full mile loss in velocity. This gives Tomlin a smaller margin of error.

The majority of signs point to regression and a poor second half for Josh Tomlin. If we look even deeper, is there something that points to the opposite?

For one, Tomlin pounds the strike zone. His zone percentage of 48% is 20th among qualified pitchers. Similarly, his 65.2% first pitch strike rate is 16th among qualified pitchers. Tomlin is able to get ahead of the count and give himself the advantage in almost two thirds of plate appearances.

With Statcast data, we can try to take a look at how Tomlin does in regards to the quality of contact. If he is suppressing exit velocity or if he is getting batters to hit at poor angles, could his performance be sustainable?  Among pitchers who have thrown at least 1000 pitches, Tomlin ranks has the 45th lowest average exit velocity off of pitches (133 pitchers). A slower hit ball is more likely not to result in a hit. Tomlin owns the third highest contact percentage meaning his go to strategy is to force batters into making contact (preferably weaker) rather than going for whiffs. This makes sense due to his lackluster velocity.

One issue with this approach is that Tomlin doesn’t necessarily have good contact management skills. Despite a solid exit velocity, he ranked near the bottom of Tony Blengino’s contact quality report. The adjusted contact score of 116 is above the 104 league average.

Another interesting aspect of Tomlin is that his two primary pitches (Fourseam Fastball and Cutter) both end up a lot in the infield. The Indians have the fourth best Defence rating on FanGraphs. Francisco Lindor is one of the best defensive shortstops (one of the best in general) in the game.

Tomlin FB HMap
Fastball Spray Heatmap

 

Tomlin Cutter HMap.png
Cutter Spray Heatmap

In addition, Tomlin’s cutter and curve deceptiveness is intriguing. Both have almost the same horizontal and vertical release points. They also have a 10 MPH difference in speed. This is somewhat similar to what Marco Estrada of the Toronto Blue Jays does to deceive the batter. In Estrada’s case, when he winds up to pitch, the batter will attempt to recognize what pitch is coming based on his release points. Since the release points are so similar, batters have a tough time guessing and must rely on other factors such as velocity to pick out the type of pitch and where it is likely going. Estrada does it to the extreme with great success; Tomlin may be doing something similar here with his cutter and curveball.

 

With some metrics pointing towards instant regression (FIP) and others giving some hope (low exit velocity), Tomlin is somewhat of an enigma. There is some potential he can continue pitching to the tune of a 3.50 ERA but also some signs that he’s looking at an ERA over 4 after the all-star break. Time will tell how he does, but this makes for an interesting pitcher going forward for myself.

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