July 31, 2014

Player Profile: Josh Tomlin and the Other Shoe

On Monday I wrote that perhaps we shouldn’t put too much stock in Michael Brantley’s historical performance. My argument was mostly that he’s a young player who’s still developing his offensive skills, and with young guys, we should be a bit patient before making grand pronouncements of failure.

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…

  • BisonDeleSightings

    Great write-up, Jon.  It’s fairly obvious that Tomlin’s performance is going to slip this year, but hopefully not by a huge margin.

    There’s no getting around the fact that his BABIP is going to go up, probably by at least 25 points.  But let’s hope that HR/FB% regresses to a level of 8% or so.  And while his BB/9 rate is sure to go up, pitches usually see a variance of less than 1 BB/9 from year to year. 

    I think it’s reasonable to expect him to fare much like he did in 2010, with an ERA and FIP in the four-and-a-half range; good enough for a #4 starter.

  • mgbode

    In deference to Spring Training Optimism™, let me pull you back in:

    So, his walk rate and BABIP go up a little bit.   His HR rate should go down and his SO rate should go a bit up, which will help make up for some of that.   And, his LOB% was actually low last year as well.

    If he can continue to work on getting a better GB% (went from 28% – 38% the last 2 years and was a noted “point of emphasis), then he very well could have his best career year.   Not mind-blowing, but starter3 level (as our 4th starter).

  • Harv 21

    Concerned that he’s Jeremy Sowers Part II, finesse young guy who “knows how to pitch” and then flames out once he’s been around for a few years. Maybe he needs to add a knuckleball to stick around. Now that Wakefield’s retired not sure there’s anyone else doing it in the AL.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Jon, what about combining that analysis: 

    I think that the low walk and K rates are related: Basically, he was putting a strong emphasis on putting everything in the zone, so nobody was walking, but they weren’t chasing pitches or taking pitches either – they knew it would be in the zone, so they weren’t going to let a pitch go by (especially with two strikes). That might also explain the low BABIP – if people were forced to swing at pitches they couldn’t turn into much, then those would be slightly more likely to end in outs (i.e. pop-ups and ground balls vs. line drives). On the other hand, since everything is in the strike zone, it’s harder to have fly balls off the end of the bat out of the zone that result in outs – more balls are getting hit out of the strike zone so they’re more likely to have a good piece of wood on it.I’m guessing that this year, especially now that he’s established a strong reputation for staying in the zone, he’ll start trying to expand it a bit more. This will result in a few more walks, and a few more Ks, and a few less long fly balls but a slightly higher BABIP – but overall he’ll come out more ahead. I like James’ prediction, though I’m hoping for some more Ws with those numbers. :) (Not that Ws are a worthwhile stat in the first place…)

  • Mark Novak

    I’m a little nervous about Tomlin too.  At least Sowers and Laffey were crafty left-handers.  Not to say that he’ll head down that path but I’d be very, very surprised if he even sniffs the numbers Bill James projects in 2012.

    Whatever the Tribe does, I sure hope they don’t put Tomlin and Slowey in the rotation at the same time.  Only one of those guys can pitch every 5 days for a major league team.  Maybe you slot them behind hard throwers like Masterson and Jimenez, respectively, but to me, they’re far too alike (and mediocre) to dominate the same lineup twice in a 3- or 4-game series.  Much higher on the Gomez/Huff/Barnes cavalry down in C-bus than these guys.

  • Mark Novak

    I’m a little nervous about Tomlin too.  At least Sowers and Laffey were crafty left-handers.  Not to say that he’ll head down that path but I’d be very, very surprised if he even sniffs the numbers Bill James projects in 2012.

    Whatever the Tribe does, I sure hope they don’t put Tomlin and Slowey in the rotation at the same time.  Only one of those guys can pitch every 5 days for a major league team.  Maybe you slot them behind hard throwers like Masterson and Jimenez, respectively, but to me, they’re far too alike (and mediocre) to dominate the same lineup twice in a 3- or 4-game series.  Much higher on the Gomez/Huff/Barnes cavalry down in C-bus than these guys.

  • mgbode

    I like Gomez a bunch.  He’s my favorite of the young guns right now. 

    Masterson/Jimenez/Lowe/Tomlin/Gomez

    and we’re all worried about Tomlin (and Lowe and Ubaldo too), but hey, it’s not even April, so I’m going to wash those worries away for now :)

  • SchmittyMcDItty

    Thank you for wasting 3 minutes of my life with the dumbest article i’ve ever read… Where’s Doc Brown when I need him.