Second Thoughts Game #80: Cleveland 5, Seattle 0
Josh Tomlin's 2014 had been likely the most successful of his career. His 4.24 ERA entering Saturday's game was the best of his career, his strikeout rate has been at a career high, and most of his struggles have been brought on by an unsustainably high home run per fly ball ratio. Tomlin's xFIP (3.56) has been very good for a starter, strikingly so given that xFIP has a tendency to underrate extreme flyball pitchers like Tomlin. Tomlin's has something of a sabermetric breakout.
None of which, however, answers the pressing question of the night: what on Earth was that?
The laconic version was a complete game shut-out in which Tomlin allowed only one baserunner that allowed for Cleveland to win 5-0 over the Mariners. To be sure, the offense did well to score five runs on the game, but the runs were predominantly on the backs of its four extra base hits. But Tomlin's performance defined the night.
Court Intrigue in Seattle
If one were presented with a Safeco Field performance that looked like 9 IP, 11 K, 0 BB, 0 R, 1 H, one would likely congratulate Felix Hernandez on the continuation of his excellent 2014 campaign. That it was Josh Tomlin is entirely surprising.
While this appears, at first glance, as a slight against Tomlin, the little cowboy's profile simply does not include a prolific strikeout rate. At no point in his career has Tomlin ever been an above-average strikeout pitcher - irrespective of his abilities holistically, the swinging strike simply has not been a substantial part of his pitching profile. His 2014 strikeout and swinging strike rates have been the highest of his major league career by a substantial margin - 19.8% and 9.1%, respectively, entering Saturday's game - but they were each approximately league average. Given Tomlin's walk rate, 'average' is quite good; in Fielding Independent terms, however, Tomlin's strikeout and walk rates have not been able to compensate for his extremely if unsustainably high home run rate.
One solution to fixing these FIP woes, as Tomlin reminded us, is to throw a walkless, homerless game with three more strikeouts than his previous career high. Easy enough.
Tomlin's previous two eight-strikeout games occurred in consecutive 2014 starts - on May 26th against the White Sox and June 1st against the Rockies - and between those two games, Tomlin had a well-above-average 9.7% swinging strike rate in total, induced 18 whiffs on 184 pitches. In 111 pitches on Saturday, Tomlin induced 17 swinging strikes, for a Salazar-like 15.3% swinging strike rate.
Unlike previous games, however, his four-seamer and sinker, which induced a grand total of the two whiffs in the May 26th and June 1st games combined, induced seven in Friday's game. Typically his non-cutter fastballs have been simple 'avoid balls' pitches, which goal they have fulfilled with admirable sufficiency. Before Saturday, Tomlin had only ever garnered more than 4 whiffs on his four-seam fastball once, and had never garnered more than one whiff on his sinker - on Saturday, Tomlin garnered five whiffs with the four-seam and two with the sinker.
Intriguingly, his velocity hovered around an average velocity of 90.3 MPH (or 87.0 for the sinker), so it wasn't as though he was more effective than usual in terms of velocity. It's curious that on Saturday his fastball/sinker combination would be so much more effective - it's entirely speculative, but it might be the case that Seattle simply had a poor night at the plate.
That, at least, handles the swinging strike portion of the night. Tomlin's night was extremely good for those things within his control, but he had help in the form of top-flight framing catcher, Yan Gomes. Below is the called strike zone chart for left-handed hitters - the right-handed hitter chart is excluded because Tomlin threw only two called pitches (both balls, both well out of the zone) to a right-handed hitter.
Barring a throwing error to advance Kyle Seager to 3rd, Yan Gomes did everything behind the plate correctly; he got every pitch within the de jure zone and nearly every pitch in the de facto zone - which de facto zone, one notes, the home plate umpire did not universally grant to against left-handed hitters. More noteworthy and amusing are the things that Gomes did especially well - an extremely high pitch, a pitch that was low and on the outside corner, and one particularly amusing pitch that was tremendously low on the inside corner. It was off the plate and only a foot off the ground - the sort of pitch that if called against A.J. Pierzynski would lead to an ejection within two seconds.
Tomlin's control has been widely-praised, and with good reason: his walk rate on the season has been extremely low. But the key to control is getting called strikes. There's no way to criticize Tomlin after the night - he was, if not perfect, far closer than most get. His no-walk performance was, from a skill perspective, simultaneously more common and more demonstrative of the pitcher's individual skill than the average no-hitter. Tomlin's performance was an unqualified success. Gomes's contribution was a cause of this success, not a mitigating factor, and while this writer has been as viciously critical of the Cleveland defense as any, it merits attention when Yan Gomes, by far its strongest bright spot, helps the team excel in a way that might otherwise escape notice.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just look at Tomlin's splits - he's getting hammered by the 3 and 4 hitters. Last night he avoided that, and hopefully he can bottle whatever he had going.
The fact that Tomlin's xFIP was 3.56 while his actual ERA was 4.24 indicates how badly he's been hurt by the Tribe's league-worst defense. Striking out 11 is one way to minimize the negative effects of the defense.
The Mariners really helped out Tomlin by starting 8 left-handed hitters. Lefties are hitting a mere .219 against Tomlin while righties are at .274 - an unusual reverse split. Looking at the heat chart, Tomlin hammered them inside while avoiding pitches low and away, which is not what you'd expect from a guy who supposedly has marginal stuff and gives up a lot of HR's.
Tomlin has had two major problems. One, he gets killed by the #3 and #4 hitters in the order. Six of his 10 HR's have been hit by #3 and #4 hitters, and they're hitting well over .300 against him. Second, he gets hit hard the third time through the order. His OPS is .640 for the first 45 pitches and jumps to .859 after that. A typical Tomlin start involves him pitching effectively for about five innings but then getting hammered by the big boys the third time through the order.
I get the impression that he dances through the first two times with smoke and mirrors, but the third time hitters face him they are on to his tricks and punish him. For some reason he managed to avoid that last night. I wonder if he had a breakthrough or if this game was an anomaly.
Yesterday they were pretty good, especially the outfielders, and this is the result.
I was thinking along the same lines. I think someone once called Tomlin a "Poor Man's Greg Maddux," likely due to the outstanding control he has shown throughout his career.
Walter, while I only seen the final inning of the game, I heard from Rick and Matt that there was only one hard-hit ball all game and that it was caught. I think Seager hit it, and it was the diving catch by Raburn they were referring to. From what I understand, Seager's hit was hitting the ball the opposite way, so I don't think the pitch that gave up the hit was even a mistake- I think it was a piece of good hitting and a bit of luck that the ball fell in from what I understand. The mistake was probably the hard-hit ball that Raburn caught- that ball had too much of the plate and was right in Seager's wheelhouse, enabling him to drive it.
Just goes to show that you have to be both good and lucky throughout 9 innings (sometimes more) to get a perfect game or even a no-hitter- why just a handful of pitchers have done it throughout MLB history. Hopefully, this performance and Tomlin's performance throughout this season have quieted the naysayers who say that Tomlin shouldn't be in the rotation. The only real issue has been the HR rate, and outside of a few HRs at most, the rest have been solo shots- that probably will improve with time and experience, just as the swinging strike rate may also improve over time and more experience with Tomlin.