Josh Tomlin and Sneaky Upside

  Josh Tomlin: David Richard/USA Today Sports  
Baseball is a game of evolution, a game of adaption, one which requires it's players to constantly shift in order to find success. In recent years we have watched the many iterations of Carlos Carrasco; the current one being dynamic.

Josh Tomlin has begun an evolution, and is ensconced in his second iteration. I must confess I never expected a second stage from Tomlin when he came up. Tomlin paired a high 80's low 90's fast ball with a dynamite curveball. However, it appeared through the first 342 innings of his big league career that Tomlin would rely solely on dodging hard contact, with a 4.95 K/9, it was hard to display optimism about the "little cowboy".

However, something at the very substance of Tomlin changed in 2014 and if we don't pay close attention, we may not realize how much he improved.

This likely all goes back to 2012, Tomlin struggled mightily battling with his mechanics and pain before succumbing to Tommy John Surgery that would wipe out the rest of his 2012 season as well as all but two innings of 2013.

All of the sudden 2010-2012 Tomlin that of the 342 innings, 4.95 K/9, 1.71 BB/9, 4.59 FIP and 4.95 ERA became 2014-2015 Tomlin with 169.2 IP, 8.01 K/9, 1.17 BB/9, 4.17 FIP and a 4.08 ERA.

Obviously the post surgery sample is smaller for Tomlin but it is clear that there has been a significant overhaul in the past two years.

Unfortunately for Tomlin, his fast ball has not received any spike in velocity, and further there have not been any dynamic shifts in pitch movement. Where have the gains come from? Control and curveball command.

First control. Tomlin has to be in constant command of the strike zone in order for his secondary pitches to dominate.

I feel the need to discuss what I view  control and command as. Control is the mere ability to throw strikes. Command is the ability to target and use each sector of the strike zone. There are pitchers who have control, that is they limit walks but lack the command to manipulate hitters throughout the strike zone, Tomlin has improved both important tools.

The surface level signal of improved control is BB/9, which as shown above has obviously taken a huge step forward to an elite level.

Another positive indicator and key for Tomlin is F-Strike% which is the percentage of the time Tomlin throws first pitch strikes. Essentially it speaks to Tomlin's ability to get ahead. Tomlin has taken a step forward in this category after already being significantly better than league average which is 60.9%. Clearly, Tomlin's control has improved at the margins which effects his entire arsenal.

While people often set aside Tomlin's arsenal because we have become somewhat obsessed with fastball velocity, Josh Tomlin's curveball is one of the best in baseball and anchors a solid arsenal.

In 2014-2015, Tomlin has one of the 20 best curveballs in terms of value per 100 pitches. Indeed, his out pitch is in lofty company. 

The curveball has been an essential part of Tomlin's increasing K/9 and has seen the largest improvement of any pitch in his arsenal over 2011-2012. 

As seen above the curveball has been exemplary, and as Tomlin's K/9 has spiked it is clear that the curveball is why. Raising the question, why has the pitch been so much better the past two years?

Location, location, location. 

In 2012, Tomlin struggled to command his curveball inside and outside the strike zone, as we see too many curveballs in the strike zone as well as too many curveballs that slipped as seen in the top left quadrant. 

In 2014-2015, as the gif shows, Tomlin has stayed out of the strike zone generally, and the curveball has been down below the zone. Part of Tomlin's leap forward in terms of control has been that he has been exquisite keeping the ball below the strike zone, thus generating swing and miss as pictured below but without the risk of hard contact which was an issue in 2011-2012.

For Tomlin, the curveball is devastating at the bottom of the strike zone, especially when he gets ahead in the count. Tomlin's leap in control has allowed him to get ahead more frequently and to use his curve ball in a devastating manner.

Essentially, Tomlin is wielding 70 grade control to play up his one plus offering, the curveball, and sustain a league average K%.

The final issue is sustainability and perhaps, the root cause for the increased command and control. I will not attempt to make a mechanical assessment. However, arm health allows for a consistent, repeatable motion which can allow control and command to play up. Certainly, Tomlin's arm health issues in 2012 were a drag on his command.

Second, it is hard not to attribute some of Tomlin's command and control improvement to his catchers. Gomes and Perez success with framing is well known and it provides Indians starters an edge. Further they appear to have helped Tomlin game plan more effectively. 

In 2016, Tomlin's BABIP and strand rate will certainly take a step back but perhaps the HR/FB improves to offset this regression. Tomlin is certainly flawed as he allows too much quality contact times, especially in the fly ball department.

However, Tomlin's harnessing of his plus-plus curveball has made him a far more viable back end starter than he was three years ago and with his team friendly contract, the Indians have stashed another bargain. As for many Indians, I cannot wait for the 2016 iteration.

Follow Mike on Twitter @snarkyhatman.
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