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Trend Spotting: The Cowboy returns and the '14 fifth starter

Trend Spotting: The Cowboy returns and the '14 fifth starter
September 5, 2013
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The last month of baseball, especially while the Indians remain on the fringes, has a collection of interesting storylines or players who are worth monitoring. Of course depending on your preferences this list changes, but in my view, Jose Ramirez, CC Lee and Josh Tomlin are the most compelling.

Compelling, because they are all auditioning or beginning their audition for their place on the 2014 Indians. Compelling because at least two of them could play an integral role in the fight for the second wild card.

Digressing, Ramirez has been addressed on IBI in a collection of places and ways, most impressively by Steve Orbanek in Orbiting last week.  Therefore, I will be taking a look at the forgotten soldier, Josh Tomlin. Perhaps he has not been forgotten as he very clearly will play a role eating starts over the last month of baseball left.

However, in terms of projecting the Indians 2014 rotation, Tomlin is a guy who is viewed as an outside possibility with the favorite solutions being the resigning’s of either Scott Kazmir or Ubaldo Jimenez.

The first real misconception surrounding Tomlin was that his stuff is short of what is necessary in order to have success at the big league level. Most of the criticisms surround his fastball velocity which has averaged 88.8 MPH with the Indians as well as touching 93.7. Start to start Tomlin generally fluctuates between 87-92 MPH without much vertical or horizontal movement to speak of.

However, while it is not an elite offering, Tomlin does have an above average curveball with solid x and y-axis movement. During Tomlin’s three big league seasons his curveball has racked up a 27.9% K% as well as a slash line of .179/.186/.274.  His curveball is a phenomenal weapon because he gets a lot of swings and misses as well as showing the ability to locate it and keep it out of the middle of the plate.

Lastly is the cut-fastball, which Tomlin throws at about the same frequency as his four seam fastball but with different purpose and results.  In fact the differentiation between the two is interesting as they display two different batted ball profiles. The cut-fastball has a 47.4% career groundball rate while the four seam fastball has a 54.2% fly ball rate.

The next endeavor will be taking a look at a few surface stats for his first three big league seasons to see if we can make sense of his production and what it means about projection.

Year

IP

K/9

BB/9

LOB%

FIP

2010

73

5.3

2.34

70

4.59

2011

165.1

4.84

1.14

68.5

4.27

2012

103.1

4.88

2.18

62.1

5.09

Due to the small sample and the fact that we should not overreact too heavily to his 2012 trends because of arm injury we will lean a little bit on his minor league background.

There are two really important things to understand about Tomlin’s success following the original understanding that his strikeout rate limits him to being an overachieving fifth starter.

The strikeout limitation is manifested most directly into his strand rate, being that high strikeout rates are the only sustainable way to “bear down” with runners in scoring position; which leads us to believe that while his 2012 strand rate may be low and possibly an outlier his career strand rate should reasonably sit between 66-68%.

The strand rate implications are that in order to have sufficient success at the major league level he needs to limit his WHIP in order to avoid situations with RISP.  So, we will look at the two most pieces affecting WHIP and what expectations should be in terms of sustainable rates.

Beginning with walk rate is important because it is what Tomlin probably has the most control over. In this case there are a few positive indicators, the first is that in his largest inning season Tomlin lead the league in walk rate.  Secondly, of his five minor league stops of over 70 innings, Tomlin’s BB/9 exceed 2.00 just once - granted plate discipline improves at the major league level so one can expect an increase in BB/9.

I would suggest that projecting a BB/9 at around 1.70-2.00 is a rational estimate, which with a minor uptick in strand rate suggests improvement from his 2012 performance.

The second piece would be batting average or hits against. Once again we surmise that 2012 was somewhat of an outlier, at least in terms of BABIP as in his first two big league seasons he sat at .274 and .253 respectively. His minor league BABIP was sub .275 cumulatively. In 2012 it was .309 - which may be inflated due to pitching through his arm injury before he was ultimately shut down.

Of course Tomlin pitches to contact and his success is highly reliant on luck as well as the defensive support he receives, which in terms of fly ball defense should improve when he returns.

It is entirely possible and probably to be expected that 2011 was Tomlin’s career year. Perhaps it is unfair to say that a 28 year old has already had his best performance but in all reality everything seemed to go right for Tomlin in 2011 including things he could control as well as things he couldn’t.

The reality is that an optimistic projection for Tomlin shows a pitcher who would be a step below or equal to a moderate season from Kazmir or Jimenez. It is possible so that the Indians could use Tomlin as a fifth starter in order to re-allocate the budget in order to acquire a hitter.

A few things that only interest me:

  • Ryan Raburn leads the Indians in ISO by almost a hundred points over Yan Gomes. Yes, Yan Gomes. Astounding that the gap is that large and two bench players have the leading ISO’s.
  • Ryan Raburn has an OPS of 1.048 and a wRC+ of 190 against right handed pitching.
  • Danny Salazar has the lowest opposing BABIP at .244.
  • Marc Rzepczynski since joining the Tribe: 12.2 IP, 7.11 K/9, 86.2 LOB%, 2.84 BB/9 and an ERA of 1.42.

Interact with Michael by email at  michael.hattery@gmail.com and on Twitter @MichaelHattery

User Comments

Rich Smith
September 5, 2013 - 8:55 PM EDT
I agree that Kazmir would be a better option than Tomlin. But I've learned not to underestimate Tomlin, Acta's "little cowboy."

If worse case scenario is to have Tomlin as fifth starter, then I'm down for that. While at the beginning of Spring Training the rotation looked like it would be an issue for many years, the emergence of Kluber, McCalister and Salazar brings much hope for future team success.
Adam
September 5, 2013 - 7:04 PM EDT
The difference between Kluber and Tomlin is that Kluber always had good stuff. I remember a few years ago, when McAllister, White, and Kluber were all in our minor league system at the same time, a lot of scouts believed Kluber had the best pure "stuff" of the whole group. So it's not like he came out of nowhere and randomly picked up a 95 mph fastball. He struck out over 9 per 9 innings in AA and over 8 per 9 innings in AAA. By far the biggest leap, the thing that's fueled his success, is that he stopped walking people. He went from a 3.52 BB/9 in AAA last year, to a 1.92 BB/9 in the majors this year. HUGE difference maker, as his K's are roughly the same.
Lisa
September 5, 2013 - 6:37 PM EDT
So much of success/failure of "to contact hitters" is pure luck. I remember Westbrook pitching back to back games for us, the first one he was successful and he got hammered in the 2nd one. The difference was mostly that the hard hit balls that because outs and double plays in the 1st game found holes in the 2nd game.

When he's on I do enjoy watching Tomlin, who can throw any pitch for a strike on any count. Still it's tightrope act guys with 98 mph fastballs don't have to walk.
Matthew
September 5, 2013 - 5:49 PM EDT
Absolutely no need to apologize, and in fact you're right, I and many others wildly underestimated Kluber. Who knows, maybe the surgery will allow Tomlin to add a little velocity and he becomes a better pitcher. We should all certainly hope so!

Your comment reminded me of this Q and A I read today with Kluber, where he explains that he's actually added 2 new pitches in the last 2 years and that has driven a lot of his success. My favorite part is how many times Kluber replies to the questions with "Mm-Hm" He's an even-keeled, man of few words, just like on the mound. Love that guy.

Here's the link: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/qa-corey-klubers-repertoire-a-brief-history/
Walter
September 5, 2013 - 5:35 PM EDT
Thanks Matthew I appreciate your insight.

But didn't we say that Kluber was not worthy being a 5th starter earlier this year. Tomlin reminds me of young Bronson Arroyo. Just my opinion. Sorry not up on the stats. Still sort follow the old school regarding stats.
Matthew
September 5, 2013 - 5:14 PM EDT
Walter--

I don't want to come across with the wrong idea. I like Tomlin a lot. I hope that he continues to be a very strong player for the Indians. I know how competitive and well-liked he is. He provides a ton of intangibles. That being said, he is not a guy that should be in a starting rotation of a good club.

Even in 2011, as you mentioned when he "won" 12 games (wins are a team stat, has almost nothing to do with a pitcher's individual performance), he was both A) lucky and B) not all that good.

In 2011, Josh was the beneficiary of an absurdly low .253 BABIP. Despite that amount of luck, he still had an ERA of 4.25.

Outside of 2011, his BABIP has been right around league average of .300 and his ERA has been well above 5.00. Granted, some of that downturn in performance can be attributed to the onset of his elbow injury, but the fact is Josh is probably a 4.65-4.90ERA starting pitcher. That's not going to cut it.

Long man? Swing man? Great. I love it, especially with what he brings to the clubhouse. But he's not a guy you can hand the ball to every 5th day.
Walter
September 5, 2013 - 4:57 PM EDT
I believe that Tomlin will be factor for the starting rotation in 2014. Remember 2 years ago he did win 12 games before his arm problems began. Also I would make a qualifying offer to both Jimenez and Kazmir. If we lose both them we would pick up extra draft picks for 2014 draft. Is the 2014 draft suppose to be a deeper draft than 2013?
Hattery
September 5, 2013 - 4:03 PM EDT
Good catch, exactly what I meant.
Hermie13
September 5, 2013 - 3:38 PM EDT
Raburn's OPS is only .853 vs RHP. It's over 1.000 against LHP.

However, when RHP starts, his OPS is 1.025. Maybe that's what you meant?

Either way, dude has been raking this year.
BrianM
September 5, 2013 - 3:00 PM EDT
I'm going to wait and see considering the minor league deals we made this year with Kazmir and DiceK. You never know who could end up in the rotation in April. Were any of us expecting to be cheering for Scott Kazmir all year long at the end of last season?
Adam
September 5, 2013 - 2:11 PM EDT
The Tomlin story is a nice one, in that most guys with his stuff would never even make it to the big leagues....but if Tomlin is relied upon for any amount of meaningful innings in 2014, we're probably in a lot of trouble. He's the kind of guy that good teams keep buried on the depth chart in case of a rash of injuries, maybe 8th or 9th on the SP depth chart.

Trevor Bauer really needs to take that big leap forward this offseason, and become that go-to 6th starter that can be called upon when the need arises.
Tony
September 5, 2013 - 1:28 PM EDT
Barring injury the Indians rotation does look to have some substance at the top and some depth in the minors. Two things you need. The key will probably be bringing one of Ubaldo/Kazmir back. Ubaldo looks to be all but gone as he's going to command way too much in free agency for what he is really worth, but Kazmir is a guy that the Indians might be able to keep, and I'd prefer it. If they can keep him and then have Bauer, Tomlin and House in Columbus, along with Packer and a minor league signing or two.....I'm down with that.
Matthew
September 5, 2013 - 1:21 PM EDT
I, for one, definitely see Tomlin as the 6th starter in 2014. The Indians will need to re-sign one of Ubaldo or Kazmir in order to solidify the rotation, but as we all know, you always need 8 or 9 SP during the season.

1. Masterson
2. Salazar
3. Kazmir/Ubaldo
4. Kluber
5. McAllister

Other options: Tomlin, Bauer, Carrasco, House

Carrasco is likely destined for the bullpen, because he is out of options. Tomlin and Bauer, on the other hand, still have options. They can be sent to AAA to get regular work, and be available for spot starts, doubleheaders, or to take over in case of an injury. My guess is Tomlin is the first option, and Bauer the second, with House an emergency option.

Tomlin is a great long man or depth starter, but shouldn't crack the starting 5 on a team competing for a division title.

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