Josh Tomlin is a flash point, a divide between heart and mind. At least, he was. Tomlin has been in the big leagues 2010 with a below average fastball, which is a feat in its own right. For Tomlin to continue to be productive at the big league level he must adapt or die. Except, Tomlin cannot merely adapt, he has to out-maneuver, out-think his opponent with great frequency. On the surface, Josh Tomlin has not had a particularly good season even by his measuring stick. Tomlin has an ERA of 5.79 and the results have been pretty extreme as he bounces between complete games and getting bounced in the early innings.
However, Tomlin has posted the a FIP under 4.00 (3.77) over 50 innings for the first time in his big league career.1 Perhaps this miniature achievement is ultimately immaterial but nothing anchors irrelevant writing quite like extraneous details. The FIP, as well as the LOB% (strand rate) of 58% would lead one to believe that Tomlin has pitched relatively well and significantly better than his outcomes.2
Time for two key pieces of Tomlin’s improvement, an exceedingly exceptional walk rate and a second consecutive year of a 40% plus ground ball rate. Regarding the walk rate, this is partially a result of noise. Tomlin generally runs an exceptional walk rate but less then one per nine innings is beyond exceptional.
The ground ball rate increase is important for a few different reasons. Tomlin has traditionally higher than average HR/FB rates. Therefore, diminishing the frequency of fly balls limits his most substantive flaw. More, ground balls are just significantly more valuable contact for a pitcher to induce.
Perhaps most interesting is that Tomlins arsenal, what underlies these outcomes has completely changed.
Two key changes can be observed in where Tomlin has radically evolved:
1) Tomlin has nearly ditched the four seam fastball instead opting for a sinker/cutter combo;
2) Tomlin throws his curveball considerably more often the past year and a half.
The sinker induces a 60.8% ground ball rate which is borderline elite. Whereas, Tomlin’s four seam fastball has a fly ball percentage of 44% for his career.3. By shifting pitches Tomlin has made significant changes to his batted ball profile.
The second development is Tomlin using his best offering with greater frequency. Tomlin’s curveball has a career batting average against of .179 and wOBA against of .210. The curveball usage movement is not a hidden one, and it was on display Tuesday night when Bauer rode 40 plus curveballs to a dominant 14 strikeout performance. Indeed, Tomlin used his curveball significantly more once the Indians reached the playoffs in order to better optimize his arsenal.
Tomlin has transitioned from a pitcher who uses the curveball between 11-14% of the time to 20% or more which is a dynamic usage shift. One of the key changes has been Tomlin using the pitch to get ahead. From 2010 to 2015, Tomlin used it on the 1st pitch 7% to LHH, 10% to RHH. In 2017, Tomlin is using it on the first pitch 15% of the time against LHH and 16% against RHH. Tomlin uses the pitch to pursue over aggression or grab a free strike looking if the hitter is sitting sinker/cutter start a plate appearance.
Tomlin’s increased curveball usage not only improves his ability to create advantageous counts but also creates a greater level of difficulty for the hitter to guess which pitch is coming next.
Perhaps Tomlin’s adjustments will not alter his overall profile but in terms of peripherals Tomlin looks like an improved pitcher and continues to look for new ways to be one step ahead of hitters.