Milwaukee signed Josh Tomlin to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training. Let’s be honest, Josh Tomlin was awful in 2018. When you look at his numbers, it begs the question, “what is David Stearns thinking?”
Don’t take my word for it. Look at the numbers. In 2018, he gave up 25 home runs. That is a high number, but not crazy, right? Heck he gave up 36 home runs in 2016, but that happened to be a pretty good year where he had a 1.19 WHIP. But the 36 he gave up in 2016 were over 174 innings. The 25 given up in 2018 were over 70 innings, ranking him 15th in the American League in home runs allowed. He averaged 3.2 home runs per nine in 2018. Yikes! Those home runs led to some pitching statistics that threaten careers. In 2018, Tomlin posted an ERA of 6.14 and a WHIP of 1.48.
Looking at him compared to the league in 2018, he does not fare well, except in spin rate on his curve (86th percentile) and spin rate on his fastball (87th percentile). Those spin rates did not equal positive results, unfortunately. His xBA against (.294) rates was in the 2nd percentile. His xwOBA (.378) came in at the 1st percentile. His xSLG (.566) ranked at the robust 0th or 0nd or just zero percentile. If you were to get these percentile ranks on college entrance exams, you would have to settle for some community college in a third world nation.
This is a pitcher noted for his ability to throw strikes and not walk people. In 2018 he walked fewer batters than ever (1.10 BB/9), but I wonder if that might be a problem too? Is he getting too much of the plate? Command is also an area of pitching prowess he is known for, yet command, not control, may have been the issue in 2018. A pitcher can have exceptional command outside the zone (Greg Maddox for example). There is nothing in terms of O-Swing%, Z-Swing%, O-Contact%, or Z-Contact% to suggest the change in performance. And his velocity remains consistent across seasons. When Tomlin gets hit, he does give up hard contact, even during better seasons. As Jeff Zimmerman indicates, it is difficult to see what can be improved, at least via analytics available to the public. Yet we will try.
Tomlin relies on five pitches. In 2018 he threw his cutter - 39.2%, 4-seamer - 28.7%, curve - 22.8%, sinker/2-seamer - 4.7%, and change up- 4.7%. Tomlin is doing what many pitchers are doing. He is attempting to throw the 4-seamer up and more cut fastballs. His fastball velocity comes in at the 2nd percentile. Tomlin is not going to blow the fastball up by anyone. He relies on command, sequencing, and deception, all of which became less effective in 2018.
Something to consider is that 2018 was the first year Tomlin was without Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who took the managerial post for the New York Mets. A pitcher like Josh Tomlin walks a slippery slope where command in and out of the zone determines success or abysmal failure. Callaway was probably very attuned to his needs and could help him self-correct. Derek Johnson was a similar type of pitching coach. If Chris Hook has a similar skill set, he could help Tomlin be effective.
To illustrate the importance of the pitching coach, Callaway in 2017 helped Tomlin during a period of struggle in what was a much better season overall for Tomlin. He was able to help the former Indians’ pitcher with a leg lift issue that was causing over rotation. Seemingly, he was able to get more cut on the cut fastball and better results on the rest of his pitches.
For Tomlin, the curveball is vital. He has very little separation from his fastball and changeup velocities. Significant variance of velocity only comes from the curve. If he is not commanding that pitch, he is going to get hit hard. If we look at pitches thrown by Tomlin in 2018, he does seem catch the middle of the zone quite a bit.
The advanced analytics folks in Milwaukee along with the Brewers’ pitching gurus will have a plan to help the 34 year old pitcher. My best guess is as follows:
Observed mechanical issues will be identified. Pitching coach Chris Hook will attempt to fix those issues with adjustments that allow for more movement on his cutter, more break in his curve, and more deception in his delivery and/or sequencing.
Tomlin seemed to pitch into the middle of the zone too much in 2018. He understands the importance of pitching to the four quadrants of the zone. He is a major league pitcher for goodness sake, and likely a smart one. Yet he failed to execute that game plan on a consistent basis, resulting in a lot of home runs. He has to rediscover command of the zone. Adjustments in mechanics, mindset, and coaching might deliver on that.
Tomlin should purposefully miss the zone more often. Having command outside the zone is a useful skill. Missing up as opposed to throwing strikes up might help. It is difficult for hitters to lay off pitches up, especially from low-velocity pitchers. But to get it by hitters up-in-the-zone, he may need to really miss. He may need to miss more with his curve ball as well. Hitters were chasing his pitches less in 2018. Only 26.6% chased outside the zone in 2018 as opposed to a 34.2% chase rate in 2016. Obviously getting MLB hitters to chase is easier said than done. Again more effective mechanics, spin rate, and sequencing are likely the answers.
There is another possible reason for Tomlin’s woes in 2018. It has nothing to do with advanced metrics, mechanics, command, mindset, or coaching; at least not directly. It is a reason for poorer athletic performance that is as old as sport itself. Tomlin just might have been injured. He actually went on the DL in July and remained there until August with a hamstring injury. His performance was actually better than the rest of his season in the month of September (1.33 WHIP) but not great. He had only two appearances in August after the DL. Those two appearances likely were about getting back into the swing of pitching again, and he pitched like he had some rust that month giving up 2 earned runs in 4 innings.
Whether he was injured or not, he got off to a dreadful start last year. In April, he made 5 appearances, pitched 18 2⁄3 innings, gave up 10 home runs and 19 earned runs, and had a 1.93 WHIP and a 9.16 ERA. May was better (1.21 WHIP), but still gave up 7 home runs in 15 2⁄3 innings. June stabilized (1.03 WHIP) , but he was also moved to the bullpen. He was lit up in July giving up 5 earned runs in 4 innings, and off to the disabled list he went with that hamstring injury. As alluded to, in August, he struggled, but ended the season fairly well. Yet 2018 was a season to forget if you are Josh Tomlin.
With all of this in mind, David Stearns must see something worthwhile. If Tomlin can be some version of what he was in 2016 or 2017, the Brewers will get a back of the rotation and/or long reliever who relies on command and control of five pitches. He will rarely touch 90 mph with his fastball, and he really does not have great stuff. If he can locate, sequence, and deceive enough, he can be a solid pitcher that can be stashed in San Antonio and could make big pitches for the big league club at some point in the season as was evidenced in Cleveland’s playoff run that led to representing the American League in the World Series in 2016.
He also might offer a solid relief option as well. There were times in 2018 that he was decent in short stints. So if he is good Josh Tomlin, he will be a depth piece that can work as a “two times through the lineup” type of starter, a decent long reliever, or a competent short reliever. Plus, he just seems like a decent human being, which is also something that David Stearns and Co. seem to target.
If the Brewers get the awful version of Josh Tomlin, he will get hammered. If he gets hammered, the Brewers will likely move on from him. Tomlin walks a thin line. His stuff is just not good enough to make a lot of mistakes. His ability to pitch intelligently, and the fact he has made some big pitches in big games could benefit Milwaukee at some point in 2019.
Josh Tomlin might be pretty good. He might be pretty terrible. Coming out of Spring training, will we get the 2018 version of Wade Mile. Might we get the 2018 version of Yovani Gallardo? The Brewers certainly don’t want the 2018 version of Josh Tomlin. 2016 Josh Tomlin would be welcome. His contract is a minor league contract, so the risk is minimal and he can work out any issues he might have while offering more valuable depth when needed. He pitched in big games with one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. That isn’t such a bad thing.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant