Second Thoughts Game #85: Kansas City 7, Cleveland 1
It was a sell-out crowd at Progressive Field on July 4th. Quintessentially American pitcher Josh Tomlin took the mound, and everything was slated to be an exciting start to the homestand.
Several hours later, Mike Moustakas hit a home run. Nick Swisher gets flak, and with good reason; Mike Moustakas, offensively, is worse. The Indians may not be literally allergic to hype, but there's clearly a minor sniffle involved. The Indians 7-1 loss on Independence Day was a hype-killer, and while this author has no reason to believe that it's anything more than terrible timing, the hype-killing loss has become something of a trend.
Tomlin Contract Situation
Tomlin's $800K salary for the 2014 season, per Cot's Baseball Contracts, is not the largest bargain on the pitching staff per WAR - that distinction goes to the man, Mr. Corey Kluber, who is one of the most effective pitchers in the league and making the league minimum simply by virtue of the fact that MLB's salary structure privileges seniority. That said, Tomlin's situation is largely incomparable to Kluber's because Tomlin has been in the majors (or rehabbing an injury incurred while in the majors) for more than three MLB years. Hence, Tomlin qualified for arbitration and Kluber did not.
Because July has arrived and the Cavaliers' offseason plans have taken over the presses, a midseason evaluation of Tomlin's intriguing contract situation might be appropriate and topical.
Arbitration might charitably be described as unique. In addition to placing extreme emphasis on stats like RBIs, HRs, and Saves, arbitration awards operate based on established precedent; an arbitration hearing would focus less on what a player's performance holistic body of work or skill set might project and more on which previous arbitration case their body of work compares best to, and the player's salary for the year would be based on the award nearest comparable players.
More urgently in Tomlin's case, subsequent arbitration awards are closely tied to previous seasons' awards - a player must be awarded a raise, but raises operate on a percentage scale of the first award - the reason that Masterson's requested award of $12M for 2014 was rejected was not because the difference between his 2013 salary ($5.6875M, per Cot's Baseball Contracts) and 2014 award would have been $6M - a large raise, but not the largest; rather, it was the fact that he was requesting an award 200% of his previous award. Previous salaries serve as a baseline whence, barring a Cy Young award, future salaries will be derived as a baseline.
Assuming Tomlin is not demoted to AAA in the next 1.5 years, he is in line for two more arbitration hearings. He might pitch well on the aggregate; he has a 3.41 ERA between Saturday's one-hit performance and Friday's relative shellacking, and a season ERA well above the average AL starter in spite of playing in front of the Cleveland defense, last in the league by nearly 20 runs by DRS, a mere 29th by UZR. Tomlin's exceeded this author's own expectations by an incredible margin; his walk-rate in 2014 has been near-elite and his strikeout rate shockingly high.
Were Tomlin entering free agency, his K%-BB% profile (factoring in the likely regression) would likely have him compensated as a well-better-than-league-average starter. His xFIP, an extremely effective predictive statistic, one that operates on the fact that HR/FB ratios typically oscillate wildly, is 3.15 - one that suggests, given neutral HR/FB ratios and neutral luck, his ERA, given his current performance, would be quite near 3.15 - a #2 pitcher who is not yet an ace. That sort of performance would be rewarded lucratively in free agency.
Yet this article has taken great care to delineate between arbitration and free agency. Namely: free agency compensation is awarded largely on what one expects will happen, what a player will be able to do going forward in terms of run prevention. Arbitration looks backwards: it cares not for predictive mechanisms and focuses largely on what a player has done in terms of run prevention. If one has ever said something along the lines of, 'Now I don't care about your xFIP-SIERA-mochaKWERAfrappuccino,' one would fit right in about an arbitration hearing. Everything is very straightforward: what are a player's run prevention numbers? What is their save count? Regardless of how repeatable the actions were, what did this player do to help the ballclub win games?
The forward case is easy with Tomlin; xFIP and SIERA really like Tomlin's performance going forward. The backwards case is much more difficult. Tomlin's 4.11 ERA in 2014 is roughly identical to the league average AL starter ERA (4.05), but 'league average' will not be enough to significantly alter the fact that Tomlin made $800K in his first arbitration award. An arbitrator is not going to suddenly bump Tomlin up to $6M in 2015 simply because his ERA was approximately league average for his circumstances. In the best case scenario for Tomlin (barring, again, a Cy Young), his arbitration awards total $6M over three years, and it's likely to be closer to $5M. Tomlin's been victimized by a terrible defense, but an arbitrator rarely has patience for such arguments.
Given this conglomeration of factoids - that Tomlin's past leaves him undervalued by an arbitrator, that his future forecasts are slightly brighter, that - without injury - he's unlikely to make more than $5M in the next two years, and that he is a Tommy John survivor - Tomlin has a substantial amount of risk facing him. The Indians, given that they can go year-to-year with him, face no such risk: they can pay below-market rates in arbitration if he's worth it or non-tender him if he isn't; given the low salary, there will not come a time in Tomlin's next two years of arbitration when he is not worth it.
The Indians could go year-to-year with him and be done with it; however, one should wonder whether an extension might be beneficial for the Indians. Tomlin's profile carries substantial risk, obviously: TJ survivor unlikely to make more than $5M over the next two years and with no guarantee of remaining a solid #5. Yet it's precisely the risk that makes signing Tomlin potentially worth it. Tomlin's agency must realize the risk inherent in his profile, that arbitration does not smile upon him, and that he was not a bonus baby. Tomlin does not have the financial security of a Trevor Bauer or a Justin Masterson. If the Indians recognized the risk and attempted to sign Tomlin, they could sign him to a contract substantially below market value.
Ultimately, a team in the Indians' position must Moneyball; they must take risks that other teams are unwilling to. Signing a serious injury risk has the obvious potential to bottom out, certainly, but the injury in question has little in the way of a bargaining position. It has the potential to be an incredibly team-friendly contract. The team demonstrated its unwillingness to sign pitchers for near-market-rate prices; given Masterson's 2014 performance, that might not be a terrible idea. But if the team is unwilling to sign any pitchers to long-term contracts, even low-dollar ones that have the potential to return great rewards, one wonders what precisely their strategy for building a rotation actually is.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With that said, I do agree with the part about taking Tomlin out there only because Tomlin is more likely to make a mistake after 100 pitches, making it more likely a guy like Moustakas would do damage, which he did. As for "five and fly," that depends on his command and how much the opposing lineup makes him work- Seattle wasn't able to, and up through yesterday, Seattle has actually scored six more runs than the Royals, so I think Tomlin is capable of mixing in strong 6-7 IP performances, even an occasional 8-9 IP; he just missed his location (badly) to Moustakas, and he took advantage of it.
And, yes, it shouldn't cost that much, especially if they do the extension(s) sooner rather than later. All the more reason not to resign Masterson and to trade pieces like Bourn and Swisher if/when the opportunity arises. Even guys like Raburn and Murphy should be considered as trade pieces if/when the opportunity arises to help free up more money to sign long-term pieces (potentially Tomlin, House, and Chisenhall).
He's a good "five and fly" guy, but he gets in trouble the third time through the order.
"But if the team is unwilling to sign any pitchers to long-term contracts, even low-dollar ones that have the potential to return great rewards, one wonders what precisely their strategy for building a rotation actually is."
Their strategy is a combination of trading for prospects (Kluber, Masterson, Bauer, Carrasco), developing draft picks and Latin signings (Salazar, Tomlin, House), and occasionally hitting on a free agent reclamation project (Kazmir).