Cleveland Indians: Pitching Depth and Josh Tomlin


The Cleveland Indians continue to search for pitching depth; can Tomlin be an answer?

Before I get into this silliness, it must be stated that all this is brazen supposition, small sample size massaging and intense fandom oozing through a modicum of analysis. Twenty-six innings from a post-surgery soft tosser isn’t really much to measure on, and so many peripherals for Josh Tomlin speak to everything going sour sooner rather than later. All but two runs he’s allowed have been from a bases-empty home run. That’s insane – eventually someone is going to be on base. That, and the fact that he’s faced moribund or slumping offenses in his four starts, kind of temper the hope he’s injecting into the Tribe faithful so far this season. But who cares, this has been fun so far.

The great worry for the Tribe pitching staff this season has been figuring out who will round out the back-end of the rotation. They pack two and a half aces along with a young gun who could be great, a very underrated bullpen and a fat question mark once every five days. The hope had been T.J. House would continue his unreal excellence from last season, but he got hurt, then Cody Anderson showed up finally and was pretty good then got hurt, and now Josh Tomlin is up and is being good. He could follow suit with the other two, but he already did the Tommy John thing so hopefully he’s gotten the getting hurt part out-of-the-way. In his short stint, he’s been nothing short of excellent.

Through four starts this season, Tomlin is striking out a batter per inning and lasting at least six innings with a 3.06 ERA and a .85 WHIP. Unheard of based on his past history, and he’s also only given up 18 hits in his 26.1 innings. He’s giving up home runs at more than his usual rate (2.4/9 innings), but he’s also issued exactly two walks in four starts. It’s a marvel to watch him pitch, that he can get supposed major leaguers out with seeming batting practice fastballs and garbage and doesn’t have to throw a million pitches while doing it. Efficiency and low velocity are uncommon bedfellows yet somehow he hooked them up. The Tribe has fought to find a fifth pitcher to round out their pen all season and this time, there’s a decent chance they did it.

While the velocity thing is probably a problem long-term and likely will remove him from consideration on the off-chance the Tribe makes it to an October series, there’s something neat about what Tomlin does. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but he’s like the poorest possible version of Greg Maddux. While it sounds like madness, the thing about Maddux was never his overpowering stuff. He just had control and enough variety and break to his pitches that hitters could never square him up. He literally worked so his slider wouldn’t sweep, his fastball wouldn’t cut eight inches, but instead just miss the sweet spot of the bat. Between his age 24 and 30 seasons Maddux only struck out 6.6 batters per nine, while walking more than two per nine. Now, rather than the 1.5 HR/9 that Tomlin gives up, Maddux was down at 0.4. That’s a good way to suppress runs.

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So Tomlin, I’m quite sure because I’m rather sane, will never be anything but Maddux’s shadow. But his repertoire complements itself even as it doesn’t overpower, much like the Mad Dog did so much better. He’s going to give up a homer a game, but when he works the edges he’s hard to pick up and he gets guys to expand and chase out of the zone as the game goes on. He throws a nice mix of breaking, offspeed and fastballs, and none of them really show themselves early. Where someone like Jered Weaver has a big, slow looping hammer of a curve, Tomlin’s doesn’t break too far, just enough to (hopefully) get off the sweet spot of the bat, causing weak contact. In the past with the Indians that was a problem because any batted ball was an adventure. But now, with the sick infield D and the revelation of Abraham Almonte in center being everything we hoped Michael Bourn would be, his fly balls and weak punches around the diamond will become more like outs than bleeding hits that lead to the three-run homer.

One of the most satisfying things about Tomlin when compared to the other guys who filled his role recently, even if it isn’t really a great thing, is that he’s a known quantity. He’s thrown 474 innings for Cleveland and has proven to be a strike thrower who on his worst day can still go about five or six with four earned runs, mostly homers. We saw that in his start against Milwaukee. We’ve also seen his best – a dazzler of a 1-hitter with 11 strikeouts in Seattle last year. He’s a flyball pitcher so he finds a good home when playing in big parks. Places like Seattle, Oakland, to a lesser extent Detroit and Cleveland. I’d just hope the coaching staff has worked the schedule and his place in it so he avoids the Yankee Stadiums or Camden Yards’s of the world.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written excitedly about what gold the Tribe struck in finding its fifth starter, but there’s something about middling pitchers that seem to gut through games with nothing overpowering that’s so exciting. It reasserts the idea that baseball is the most everyman of the American sports. Hockey is probably more everymanish, since you just need the ability to skate backwards and a disregard for your safety and teeth, but when Tomlin dominates a lineup that has Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, or Albert Pujols and Mike Trout, it’s exciting. Granted three of those guys are old and the other one went 4-for-4, but Trout wasn’t the one to homer AND He didn’t cross the plate. So that’s something. Not a lot, but again, we’re talking about the fifth starter here. It doesn’t have to blow you away. He at least tamped down half of LA’s offense.

It’s been a rotating cast of occasional misery at the 5th starter role for the Tribe this year, but between Anderson and Tomlin and maybe TJ House and the phantom of Gavin Floyd, there’s some stability there. A great team needs depth to compete- you’re going to need a spot starter for at least 10 games a year and what Tomlin is doing is exactly what the doctor ordered, especially with some of the front line guys getting dinged up. Whether it will stick, and judging from his 4.83 FIP this season there’s reason to believe it won’t, Tomlin has comported himself well. On a team that can actually score four or five runs a game he is a key piece. The Tribe offense needs to show up when he does, but if it does and he throws like he’s been doing, they’re going to keep winning. This late in the year, it’s pretty much an imperative. Tomlin has long been the last gasp of those teams that trotted out Jeremy Sowers, David Huff and the like, but somehow, finally, it’s all worked out for him, and for the Indians. It’s nice to have a good break now and then.

Next: Are the Tribe REALLY still in the race?