As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s presumptive No. 4 starter: Josh Tomlin.
Background: The Indians drafted Tomlin, now 27, out of Angelina College in the 19th round of the 2006 MLB amateur draft. Never considered a top prospect, he nonetheless pitched very well at every stop in his five-year journey through the minor leagues. He made his MLB debut in 2010 and has had a spot on the big-league roster ever since.
Last year: Tomlin won a rotation spot out of spring training and generally impressed in his first almost-full MLB season, going 12-7 with a 4.25 ERA (93 ERA+) and a 1.08 WHIP (despite cooling off at midseason) in 26 starts before an elbow injury ended his season in August. He struck out just 4.8 batters per nine innings, but he made up for that by posting the lowest walk rate (1.1 BB/9) in all of baseball. He was quite prone to the long ball (1.3 HR/9), but he still succeeded largely because of his .253 BABIP. Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus all estimated his performance as being woth between 1.8 and 2.1 wins above replacement.
Key factor: Identifying Tomlin’s true talent level. The DIPS estimators had no idea what to make of Tomlin last year. His .253 BABIP suggests his success was unsustainable, but at the same time he was hindered by a probably unlucky 68.5 percent strand rate. TERA (4.83) says he got lucky, xFIP (4.03) says he got unlucky, and SIERA (4.23) and FIP (4.27) say he was exactly as good as he looked.
2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs:
Throughout this series, we’ve seen quite a few players about whom the major projection systems all agree. Maybe there’d be one overly optimistic or pessimistic outlier, but at the very least there’s a clear consensus if you take out the best and worst outlooks a la Olympic figure skating. That’s not the case with Tomlin.
The range of projections for Tomlin’s 2012 is simply staggering. There’s a huge difference between a 1.11 WHIP and a 1.39 WHIP, not to mention the over a full run difference between Bill James’ and Steamer’s projected ERAs—the standard deviation of these projections is 0.43 runs. Not only is there a massive discrepancy between the FIP projections, but there are wildly different opinions of what Tomlin’s relationship to his DIPS numbers will be.
Best-case scenario: Bill James spells this out pretty well. Tomlin comes back fully healthy and gets his strikeout rate up to a respectable level while maintaining his stubborn refusal to issue free passes. He continues to induce weak contact and controls the long ball a little bit more and sticks in the rotation for a full season.
Worst-case scenario: Tomlin’s walk rate takes a turn for the worse without a corresponding increase in his strikeout numbers. Maintaining even a league-average hit rate proves unrealistic for a soft-tossing pitch-to-contact starter, let alone a low one. Look at Steamer’s projections, but with fewer innings pitched as Tomlin’s elbow problems continue or he loses his spot in the rotation.
Most likely scenario: As the above projections illustrate, it’s hard to pin down an expected value for Tomlin’s performance. The mean projections essentially call for him to repeat his 2011 performance; I’d probably take the under there. That a pitcher with Tomlin’s unique skill set could maintain a low BABIP is definitely plausible, but I want to see him keep it up for at least another season before I fully buy in. Expect some minor regression in 2012, but he’ll still be a very effective back-end starter.