Well, Josh Tomlin is kind of young. And he’s actually been pretty successful so far in his MLB career. But if you asked me to bet on it, I’d say that his career from here on out is a lot more likely to look like Mitch Talbot’s than Justin Masterson’s.
This is, admittedly, a pretty dour stance to take–especially considering my tendency toward Spring Training Optimism™. So why would a bring up such a crummy thought?
Let’s start by remembering what Tomlin is exceptionally good at. In 2011, no starter in baseball had a lower walk rate than Tomlin. He allowed 1.14 walks per nine innings pitched. Dan Haren was second at 1.25 per nine; Roy Halladay was fourth at 1.35. That’s pretty good company. From a plate-appearance perspective, only 3.2% of the batters Tomlin faced reached base via a walk—also the best rate in baseball by a not inconsiderable margin.
This stinginess with the free pass led to a very good K/BB rate of 4.84–anything above 3.00 is good. Unfortunately, his unprecedented control also masked some more sinister developments.
First, we should be clear: before 2011, Tomlin had demonstrated an above average ability to limit walks, but it was never other worldly. Throughout his minor league career, his BB/9 rate was around 2.00; in 2010—his first MLB year—it was 2.34. 2011 certainly looks more like the exception than the rule.
But on top of that, there were some developments in 2011 that could present a problem were they to accompany a return to mere-mortal walk-rates. For example, throughout Tomlin’s MiLB career, he struck out 7.8 batters per nine innings pitched. In his 2010 MLB season, it was 5.30. In 2011 that figure dropped all the way to 4.84. It’s almost impossible to be an effective MLB starter when you strike out fewer than five batters per nine innings. The only way Tomlin did it last year was by a (flukey?) low walk-rate.
Beyond the strikeouts, Tomlin saw a jump in his HR-rate in 2011, which could present a significant problem going forward. The average MLB rate for allowing HRs in 2011 was 0.94 per nine innings. Tomlin allowed 1.34 per nine innings—nearly 40% over the league average. Granted, he was a bit unlucky on flyballs, as he saw over 11% leave the park, but it’s still worth watching, since he’ll likely be the only pitcher in the rotation who relies on flyballs as his primary out-generator.
Even further, Tomlin’s batting average on balls in play was unsustainably low in 2011, at only .253. That’s a figure likely to see some regression this year, and that’s bad news in multiple respects. For one, more hits mean fewer outs and more base runners. But even worse, more base runners for a pitcher who’s particularly prone to home runs? I think the word I’m looking for is “exponential”.*
*Last month, Jordan Bastian wrote a really interesting piece about Tomlin’s struggles with pitching deep into games. I wanted to link to it even though it doesn’t really play in to what I’m writing here. So rather than shoe-horning it in somewhere, we’ll just do that here. If you haven’t read it, do so.
None of this is to say that Josh Tomlin will necessarily pitch worse in 2012 than he did in 2011. After all, Bill James is projecting him to rack up 10 wins with a 3.73 ERA and K/9 of 6.00. This would certainly represent the best season of Tomlin’s career, and who am I to disagree with Bill James anyway?
But I guess I am saying that if I were a betting man, I’d be a lot more likely bet that he underperforms that projection than outperforms it. Smoke and mirrors can only take you so far. The last pitcher to teach us this was Jeremy Sowers. How quickly we forget…