If Josh Tomlin is healthy and doesn’t suffer any setbacks this spring, most people are assuming he is a lock to be a member of the 2012 rotation. But is his spot really secure? Or is he battling Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Zach McAllister, and Scott Barnes for a rotation spot?
“I’m sitting in the dugout either waiting for him to get a guy out or to give up a hit,” said Acta. “I’m not on the edge of my seat. I’m not wondering ‘will he throw the ball over the plate?’…”You either get him out or you’re not going to get him out. It makes it easier for me.”
On March 25, Tomlin was named the fifth starter after posting a 1.13 ERA against major league competition and retiring 15 straight Columbus Clippers in his final spring start. This year he came to camp in Goodyear penciled in as the Indians #4 starter behind Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Derek Lowe.
What did he do in 2011 to secure spot in the rotation? First, he was a consistently solid starter. He had 12 wins against only 7 losses and gave Manny Acta 165.1 innings pitched before succumbing to an elbow strain at the end of August. He didn’t hand the ball to the bullpen until the sixth inning in an impressive 23 of 26 of those starts.
Tomlin also had a knack for hitting his spots. He thew 67.6 percent of his pitches for strikes (league average of 63.2 percent). He issued only 22 walks and his 1.1 BB/9 rate was the lowest in the American League. His K/BB ratio of 4.24 was the fourth-highest ratio for a starting pitcher in the league, behind only Dan Haren, Brandon McCarthy, and AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. His 1.077 WHIP was the seventh-lowest in the AL.
Interestingly, Tomlin did not have a single runner attempt a stolen base against him in 2011. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first pitcher who qualified for the ERA title to be able to make that claim since 1969.
Then again, some of his numbers from 2011 could put his 2012 rotation spot in jeopardy. He was exceptional his first 10 starts, posting a record of 6-2 with an ERA of 2.74 and held the opposition to a batting average of only .203. But he wore out down the stretch: from June 1 on, he went 6-5 with an ERA of 5.24. Opponents hit .273 off of him.
Great though Tomlin’s walk rate was, his other peripherals left something to be desired. His 4.8 K/9 rate was the fifth-lowest in the AL, ahead of only Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, Jeff Francis, and Mark Buehrle. He surrendered 24 home runs and his 1.3 HR/9 rate was the fourth-highest among AL starting pitchers. Only Colby Lewis, A.J. Burnett, and Max Scherzer got taken deep more frequently.
Tomlin also struggled when facing batters for the second or third time. The first time through a batting order he held opposing hitters to a .204/.234/.357 triple-slash, for a sterling 67 OPS+ against. The second time through a lineup, that improved to .256/.276/.457, good for a 98 OPS+. And the third time through the lineup opponents hit 292/.317/.506 against him, for an uninspiring OPS+ against of 111.
Are the Indians concerned that Tomlin’s early success is not repeatable? Do they see him as the increasingly hittable pitcher he became in the last couple months of 2011? Could they be worried about the health of his elbow? If Tomlin doesn’t look quite like himself in spring training and more than one up-and-coming rotation candidate steps up, he could lose his job.
Still, assuming he’s healthy, that spot is Tomlin’s to lose. Despite his late-season struggles last year he’s shown that he can be an effective starting pitcher in the majors for (almost) a full year; there’s some value in that, and this team clearly cares about rewarding experience. It’s plausible that he could lose his rotation spot, but I wouldn’t be on it.