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Tomlin: A Tribute and Closer Look

July 29, 2011

This post has been a long time coming.

Josh Tomlin is a very good pitcher. Not a lucky pitcher. A very good one.

I have resisted the idea myself. It’s hard to get excited over a ‘finesse’ pitcher. And, it can be difficult for them to provide sustained excellence at the Major League level. But Tomlin is doing it and there is no reason to think he wont keep on doing it.

It’s been well publicized that Tomlin is the first pitcher in the modern era to to go 5+ innings in his first 33 starts in the Majors. That means Acta has a guaranteed night off for the bullpen once a week and since it’s Tomlin, odds are the Tribe will be in line for a win.

One less publicized fact, yet no less impressive: in 21 starts this year, not one runner has ATTEMPTED to run on Josh Tomlin. Not only does that keep runners out of scoring position, but it also means there is no worry about putting Carlos Santana, a ‘hitting catcher,’ behind the plate for added offense. Nor are there opportunities for error at second base while fielding throws (which have been happening with unsettling frequency lately).

Meanwhile, hitters are having a hard time putting good bat on ball; so far through 2011, Tomlin is posting Cliff Lee worthy numbers:

Tomlin: 11-5, 4.01 ERA, 1.025 WHIP, 4.56 K/BB, .236 BA against (his xFIP is a much better looking 3.85)
Lee: 9-7, 3.05 ERA, 1.113 WHIP, 4.95 K/BB, .238 BA against.

This isn’t flash in the pan success. Combine his 2011 starts with his 2010 rookie campaign and we have a projected season’s worth of numbers to look at. Tomlin’s line is awesome: 17-9 (for a team that can’t hit!), 208 IP, 4.20 ERA, 1.103 WHIP, 3.31 K/BB, .244 BA against. Let me remind you that ERA is the least reliable of those numbers to predict future success. For example, there is no way that ERA will stay so high with runners so infrequently getting on base.

The only issue Tomlin has is giving up the long ball. He has surrendered 28 over the last 33 starts.

While that isn’t an ideal number, those are about the only well hit balls coming against Tomlin. His GB/FB ratio is a phenomenal .95 and of the fly balls given up by Tomlin, 10% don’t make it out of the infield. As he grows as a pitcher that HR rate will come down.

Meanwhile, I don’t think we need to worry about his league leading 1.1 BB/9 rate to grow much. He throws more than 2x as many strikes as he does balls. More than half the time he starts ahead in the count with a 66% first strike rate.

I say I expect Tomlin to keep this up because occasionally a finesse pitcher emerges who simply knows how to pitch. I think Tomlin is one of those guys. Hell, he isn’t necessarily even your typical ‘finesse’ guys: he is a cutter/curve pitcher. These are a pseudo breed that don’t rely on all breaking pitches, but who mask their fastball with some movement. These guys use all of their tools to get outs, let’s call them ‘cerebral.’

Let’s just look at some statistical similarities and see if I can convince you Tomlin could be long term legit.*

*Disclaimer: I’m aware we only have 1 season of statistics to dissect for Tomlin and that greatness over prolonged periods takes more than statistical similarities, I’m just saying, the kid is heading down the right path. I’m also going to try and use advanced stats to show how Tomlin’s pitching style is setting him up for success. I’m not going to try and claim his performance measures are reliable future predictors.

Let’s look at the types of pitches Tomlin throws, their frequency, their quality, and his ability to work the zone inside and out and go from there.

1) Types and frequency of pitches thrown:
(FB=fastball, SL=slider, CT=cut fastball, CB=curveball, CH=change-up)

Pitcher 1: 44.7% FB, 3.6% SL, 26.5% CT, 13.9% CB, 11.3% CH
Pitcher 2: 55.4% FB, 0.4% SL, 23.3% CT, 09.7% CB, 11.2% CH
Pitcher 3: 57.0% FB, 0.9% SL, 20.4% CT, 15.4% CB, 07.2% CH
Pitcher 4: 51.3% FB, 0.9% SL, 13.6% CT, 27.0% CB, 01.1% CH

2) Quality of pitches:
(We are going to use the number of runs surrendered or saved by each pitch as measured by the number of strikes/outs/runs/hits/balls it yields [i.e wFB]. Then, to compare the pitches more accurately, we will contextualize the measure by showing it per 100 pitches [i.e wFB/100]. Since our pitchers threw these pitches with very similar consistency, this measure should be pretty accurate not only as measures, but as comparison points).

Pitcher 1: 0.24 wFB/100, 1.06 wSL/100, 0.95 wCT/100, 1.18 wCB/100, -1.55 wCH/100
Pitcher 2: 0.71 wFB/100, -1.28 wSL/100, -0.14 wCT/100, 2.48 wCB/100, 0.22 wCH/100
Pitcher 3: 0.11 wFB/100, .50 wSL/100, 1.19 wCT/100, 0.53 wCB/100, 0.05 wCH/100
Pitcher 4: 0.05 wFB/100, -0.42 wSL/100, -0.60 wCT/100, -0.03 wCB/100, -0.67 wCH/100

3) Strikes outside the zone (O-Swing%) and swinging strikes (SwStr%) as well as type of contact induced:

Pitcher 1: 0.80 GB/FB, 21.5% LD, 31.1 O-Swing%, 7.9 SwStr%
Pitcher 2: 0.94 GB/FB, 19.8% LD, 25.0 O-Swing%, 8.1 SwStr%
Pitcher 3: 1.59 GB/FB, 20.9% LD, 25.0 O-Swing%, 9.0 SwStr%
Pitcher 4: 1.33 GB/FB, 20.5% LD, 23.5 O-Swing%, 6.8 SwStr%

As you can see, our 4 pitchers share some similarities. All 4 typically relied on a cutter and curve, threw a fastball nearly half the time, and had a 4th or 5th pitch to mix in. None had a particularly great fastball and frankly, while each had 1 or 2 ‘plus’ pitches (at least), none seemed exceptional (perhaps pitcher 2’s CB). As a result, each pitcher makes/made his money ‘pitching’- mixing up pitches and knowing how to get out their opponents. Greg Maddux was the master of ‘cerebral’ pitching, he scouted batters so well that they never stood a chance. Finally, all 4 pitchers tried to keep the ball on the ground, nibble around the edges (0-Swing%), limit line drives, and didn’t rely on blowing pitches by guys in the strike zone.

So, who are our 4 pitchers?

Pitcher 1 is Tomlin; 2 is Cliff Lee; 3 is Andy Pettitte; and 4 is David Wells.

If Tomlin mirrored any of those 3 guys we would say he had a great career.

The caveat with pitchers like this is that they have to evolve. Lee, Pettitte, and Wells all relied on pitches cyclically, favoring them certain years but not always. In addition, these are pitchers that have to work VERY HARD to stay on top of the game. They are continually studying opponents and honing their location to stay a step ahead.

Lee’s career is a perfect example of this. He was always pretty good. But, it wasn’t until he got sent down to the minors after several years of pretty decent win totals but somewhat high ERAs that he realized pitching in the MLB was a job and he would not only have to always be sharp with location, but always know who he was pitching against. Now he is arguably the best pitcher in the MLB.

One of the reasons I am optimistic about Tomlin, is that outside of Lee’s curveball, I think his stuff matches up with these guys pretty well. In fact, so far, stats show that 4 of his pitches are ‘plus’ pitches. Only his change-up is a liability. Frankly, I hope it phases out as he improves the curve. It’s an unnecessary pitch for a guy who doesn’t throw very hard. It’s straight and it’s slow and hopefully it will go.

In the meantime, I urge you all to jump on his bandwagon. I am not the driver, but I got myself a ticket. So much so that I literally bought a ticket (ridiculously priced) to see Tomlin (hopefully I’m not behind a pole) Monday night in Fenway against the MLB’s best line-up (the Boston Red Sox).

He is going to be in for a long night: Elsbury leads the league in July home runs (8) and Pedroia is right behind him (7). Those are also the 1-2 batters. He will also have to throw to Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez (best swing in the bigs?), and Big Papi. I have already noted that Tomlin is having issues keeping the ball in the park.

Still, I’m optimistic. I think he can dominate this line-up (again… he went 7, giving up 1 ER, and 6 base runners Apr. 5 for a Win) and it’s even possible that the Indians can hit John Lackey.

I only wish I had a Tomlin jersey to sport.


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