Cleveland Indians’ Josh Tomlin Can Help Rotation, Despite Home Runs

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Will Josh Tomlin Last in the Cleveland Indians’ Rotation?

It’s that time of the year again, when the Cleveland Indians give Josh Tomlin another chance to prove he’s got the skills needed to be a major league starter.

Tomlin, who missed almost all of the 2013 season with Tommy John surgery, has been largely absent from the Tribe’s pitching staff again this year. He was sidelined with a shoulder injury that cost him the first three months of the season, before being sent to Triple-A Columbus. In his time with Cleveland this season, Tomlin has made three starts, posting a 2-1 record with a 3.26 ERA over 19.1 innings.

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Tomlin doesn’t have the best raw talent, and he certainly doesn’t blow hitters away. His fastball velocity through his six-year major league career has averaged just 88.7 mph, and that is the pitch he relies most heavily on. His lack of velocity explains why his career strikeout rate averages just 15.5 percent, far below the rest of the Tribe’s rotation, despite having a good curveball.

But Tomlin has shown signs that could mean he’s finally starting to figure out how to handle hitters. His 25 percent strikeout rate this season is due at least in part to a small sample size. However, he had a 21.1 percent strikeout rate in 2014, when he pitched 104 innings for the Tribe. The combination of those two seasons show that this isn’t just a recent trend. Similarly, his career walk rate is an admirable 4.2 percent, but in 2014, he dropped it to just 3.1 percent, and this season, only 2.8 percent of batters have received a free pass.

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For those who prefer counting stats, that means he’s had 2 walks in 72 plate appearances this season, and last year he walked just 14 of the 446 men he faced. Those type of numbers mean he might be the equivalent of a Mark Buerhle – someone who works fast, relies on their defense to get outs, and doesn’t mind giving up the occasional long ball.

Of course, “occasional” is not the correct way to describe six home runs in 19 innings, which is what Tomlin has allowed this season. Last year, he allowed 18, which is certainly high, but not nearly as bad as what he’s done in 2015. In fact, 27.3 percent of Tomlin’s fly balls have been home runs, compared to 15.3 percent last season. He’s allowed more hard-hit balls than he has in previous seasons, something that will almost certainly even out as he collects more innings.

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The usual statistic to turn to when a pitcher is doing better than they have in the past is FIP, but Tomlin’s tendency to give up homers skews his FIP beyond what it probably should be, to 5.61. That’s a far cry from his 3.26 ERA, and when batters are hitting just .171 against him and his WHIP is just 0.72, it’s not a very accurate depiction of his “true” talent. His xFIP, which uses 10.5 percent for his home run rate, is just 3.22 – almost exactly what his ERA is. While he does give up far too many home runs, he typically does it with no one on base, minimizing the damage and helping to keep his ERA from skyrocketing.

As it stands, Tomlin is a solid fifth starter in a rotation full of young strikeout pitchers, even if his style is very different from the rest of the group. As long as he can remain healthy, the Indians should look to keep him in that spot for the rest of the season, and possibly even next year. He’ll never be the ace of the staff, but his pace of play and his control make him a valuable member of the rotation.

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