Josh Tomlin Making a Case for Himself
Around this time last year, Corey Kluber was just beginning to make his presence known. Despite occupying a rotation spot the previous year, he had been no more than an afterthought in the 2013 spring training competition for the fifth starter’s job.
Kluber had struggled with the Tribe in 2012, finishing with a 5.14 ERA after batters hit .295 against him in 12 starts. He certainly wasn’t the team’s first choice when they needed to call up a spot starter from Columbus. If Trevor Bauer hadn’t pitched so poorly, and Carlos Carrasco hadn’t immediately gotten himself suspended, who knows whether the Indians would have ever really given Kluber a second chance to stick in the rotation.
At first glance, his 2012 season seemed bad enough to keep him in the minors for quite some time. But despite Kluber’s 2-5 record in 2012, he had a 3.99 xFIP – which was the lowest among Indians starters that year. His 6.4 percent walk rate was well-below league average, and he struck out a respectable 19.2 percent of the hitters he faced. It wasn’t as though he was a terrible pitcher – he just wasn’t getting the results.
Fast-foward to 2013, and by mid-season, Kluber had emerged as one of the key factors in the Indians’ playoff push. After increasing his strikeout rate and decreasing his walk rate, he finished last season with a 3.10 xFIP and a 3.85 ERA. When he was sidelined in August with a finger injury, it was considered a devastating blow to the rotation. Somehow, Kluber had gone from a below-average pitcher to a starter whose absence might crush the team’s playoff hopes.
Kluber is certainly not the first or the last pitcher to be written off as someone who can’t cut it in the major leagues, only to exceed everyone’s expectations. His fairly sudden rise from mediocrity took people by surprise, but it’s not as rare as it seems.
On Monday, the Indians announced that Carrasco was moved to the bullpen, after he struggled in his first several starts. There hasn’t been a corresponding roster move made yet, but it seems likely that either Bauer or Josh Tomlin will join the club in time for Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Twins.
Tomlin, who missed all of last year with Tommy John surgery, was largely overlooked until the final weeks of spring training. He pitched so well throughout March that he finally garnered some attention, but the fact that he had an option left made it much easier to send him to Columbus and let Carrasco have the first shot at the fifth starter’s job.
Is it possible that the Tomlin, who posted a 4.03 xFIP in his last full season with the Tribe in 2011, could become a reliable starter in the same manner that Kluber did last year?
While Tomlin does not have the same upside as Kluber, he could be another pleasant surprise for the Indians. He has had more time to establish a track record in the major leagues, but is still relatively young. So far this season, he has been extremely effective for the Columbus Clippers. In 35 innings, he has a 2.06 ERA with 28 strikeouts, and has given up just 22 hits. Although he has allowed three home runs and nine walks, he has steadily improved in each outing.
The high walk rate in his earlier starts was uncharacteristic of Tomlin. As someone who pitches to contact, he will give up home runs, but his walk rate has always been well-below average – limiting the damage that those home runs can do. Control is a very important part of his game, so the steady decline in walks is a good sign.
There’s only one reason that the Indians should pause before they consider calling the 29-year-old up to Cleveland, and it really isn’t a reflection on him.
The Tribe defense can’t be trusted to make even the simplest of plays at the moment, and Tomlin’s results are highly dependent on the ability of the eight other players on the field to make outs. Right now, Cleveland is one of the worst defensive teams in baseball and are last in the league with -25 defensive runs saved.
Can a pitcher who doesn’t normally rely on strikeouts get past that? It’s hard to say based on his minor league appearances. In the minors, Tomlin has always had a strike out rate closer to 20 percent, but has averaged just 13.2 percent during his time in the majors. Until he gets the opportunity to face major league hitters, there’s no way to tell if he’s actually improved, or if it’s just the quality of hitters that he’s facing. Of course, if the Indians’ defense goes back to making routine plays, this won’t be a major concern.
Last Friday, Tomlin threw eight shutout innings against the Gwynette Braves, striking out six while giving up six hits. He followed that with a complete game shutout on Thursday against the Durham Bulls, allowing just three hits and striking out ten. He didn’t walk a batter in either game and hasn’t allowed a run in his last 20 innings. How can the Indians ignore those results?
Despite the small sample size, Tomlin has earned the opportunity to show the team what he can do at the major league level now that he is fully healthy. Giving a second chance to Kluber worked out extremely well for the Tribe last season. They should try repeat that success again this year.