On June 14th, Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin was mercilessly shelled by the Cincinnati Reds. He gave up six runs on 10 hits, including two home runs, en route to a miserable four-inning start and a 12-5 Tribe loss. It was his worst outing of the year, due in part to the fact that the Great American Ballpark is very homer friendly and Tomlin is a flyball pitcher.
Over the course of his career, Tomlin’s grounder/fly ball ratio is .60, so for every fly ball (including line drives) he gives up, batters knock it into the ground just .6 times. Just 43 percent of batted balls he’s allowed have been worm burners. He recorded four outs on grounders against five on fly balls that night in Cincinnati, along with several hard hits in the air. It wasn’t pretty, and it’s a good thing he doesn’t play in a bandbox like GABP on a regular basis.
Tomlin faced the Reds again on Tuesday, this time in the friendly confines of Progressive Field. The Prog is slightly favorable to pitchers, though not to the same extent that the GABP is to hitters. Even so, the Reds’ lineup can pack a punch, and Tomlin does not have the blow-you-away stuff that would silence them. He makes his living on the mound with guile, location and movement. So while he would presumably have made some adjustments, there was no reason to expect a significant improvement on his previous outing.
Then the game started. After a leadoff double by Zack Cozart and an RBI single from Chris Heisey gave the Reds the lead, Tomlin started mowing them down. He struck out two and walked two (a shocker in itself as Tomlin’s greatest strength is not giving free passes) and gave up six hits. But more importantly, he kept the ball on the ground to the tune of 11 groundouts against three flyouts. As the game wore on and he induced his second double play of the night, it was clear that he wasn’t pitching like his normal self.
So what was he doing differently? Were we seeing something new out of the softballing Texan? There are two possible answers here: one simple and boring, the other a bit more complex and exciting. We could just chalk it up to small sample size and good luck and move on. After all, a guy doesn’t just change his ways overnight. But there really was a noticeable difference in Tomlin’s approach: He was using, and commanding, his cutter more than normal.
Tomlin has gone to his cutter 31 percent of the time for his career and on 36 percent of his offerings in 2012. But on Tuesday, 43 percent of his pitches were cutters. A leap of 7 percent isn’t massive, but it was significant that he used it instead of his changeup—11 percent of MLB pitches Tomlin has thrown have been changes, but he threw only two against the Reds on Tuesday. For a hurler who depends on deception to get guys out, the off-speed pitch is a decent way to cause weak contact—but the cutter is better. A pitcher don’t need to change his delivery from the four-seamer as much as he would when throwing a changeup, because you want similar velocity.. It doesn’t move a whole lot, but Tomlin’s dances enough to prevent batters from squaring up.
Let’s take a look at how Tomlin used his pitches Tuesday night.
Tomlin threw cutters up and in against left-handed hitters, jamming guys and breaking bats. It’s a small sample size, but it seemed to work well: the two lefties he faced—the powerful duo of Joey Votto and Jay Bruce—combined for a double, two groundball outs and a 1-for-6 evening.
But Tomlin is unusual in that right-handed batters have done better against him then lefties. So how did he use his pitches against same-handed hitters?
Tomlin let the cutter work its way to the outside part of the plate and up the bat, forcing two double plays, including one off the bat of Tribe killer Brandon Phillips. He did a good job staying out of the middle of the zone, and save for three pitches he left up and in, he worked mostly down and away. It’s how he normally pitches anyway, but with the cutter doing the work instead of the four-seamer, he was a different guy on the mound.
Tomlin also did throw his curveball 21 times Tuesday, a fair leap from his usual 14 percent usage rate this season. He fed Todd Frazier a steady diet of breaking balls because Frazier loves the fastball to his own detriment. But the cutter, which has emerged as the pitch du jour the last decade or so thanks to Mariano Rivera, is a much more useful pitch for the pitcher because of that weakened contact. To have it move subtly off the sweet spot can neutralize a great batter and turn would-be balls in the gap into harmless dribblers.
Maybe Tomlin caught the Reds off guard and just had excellent command of his cutter for one evening. He was also hanging in the low 90’s with his velocity (normally he works in the high 80’s), so maybe he just had a good night. Or maybe—just maybe,—he’s found a unique mastery of a pitch.