The most remarkable thing about the career of Josh Tomlin may be the longevity that he’s enjoyed despite pitching, well, unremarkably. A former 19th-round pick, Tomlin rose through the ranks with the Indians and made his debut in 2010, beginning a span of nine years during which he would appear in a uniform with Cleveland. Tomlin took the ball 183 times for the Tribe and logged 898.2 innings, including five seasons where he topped 100 frames.
Only once during his eight full seasons, though, has Tomlin produced an adjusted ERA- of lower than 100, or better than the league average. He’s recorded one season with a better-than-average FIP-, and three such seasons by DRA-. Among the 411 pitchers with enough innings to qualify since the start of 2010, Tomlin’s 4.77 ERA ranks in the 9th percentile and his 114 ERA- ranks in the 12th percentile. His 113 FIP- also ranks in the 9th percentile among the group of qualified hurlers.
Tomlin hit rock bottom in 2018, setting a new MLB record (min. 50 IP) with 3.2 home runs allowed per nine innings en route to a 6.14 ERA across 70.1 innings pitched during his final season suiting up for the North Coast Nine. It wasn’t exactly surprising, then, that Tomlin was unable to find a guaranteed MLB contract after reaching free agency this past winter in advance of his age-34 season. He inked a minor league deal with Milwaukee on February 7th that will pay him a base of $1.25 mil if he’s in the majors, with another $2.25 mil of incentives available.
Tomlin’s track record, both recently and over the course of his career, don’t immediately make him jump out as a strong candidate to make Milwaukee’s starting rotation this spring. But the Josh Tomlin who reported to AmFam Fields of Phoenix to compete for a spot as a non-roster invitee is not the same pitcher who toed the slab in The Land for nearly a decade.
Tomlin decided that in order to help resuscitate a career on life support that it was time to embrace and immerse himself in all of the data available to players nowadays. In January, the native Texan headed to the Pacific Northwest to spend a week at Driveline Baseball in Washington state. Tomlin recently opened up about his experience in an interview with David Laurila of Fangraphs.
As Tomlin details, a bio-mechanical analysis of his delivery uncovered an issue with his stride and plant leg that was causing diminished velocity and “lazy run” on his pitches. He now understands how to correct this flaw in order to create better extension and a more consistent arm path. Tomlin also got a greater comprehension of the movement and spin profiles of his individual pitches, with the computer-generated data offering a far different perspective than what the scouting “eye-test” had been suggesting throughout his career, specifically when it comes to his changeup. Tomlin had long been under the impression that his changeup was his least effective offering, and therefore only threw it between four and seven percent of the time over the last five seasons.
“From what I learned, instead of throwing it 2% of the time, maybe I should throw it 20% of the time,” the enlightened Tomlin told Laurila. “On my movement profile, that’s what it was. It was changeup, curveball, cutter, fastball. They don’t exactly tell you one-two-three-four, but my changeup was grading out to be one of my better pitches, if not my best pitch.”
Tomlin even took a “pitch-design class” at Driveline during which he created his own slider, a pitch he has not utilized during his time in the big leagues. Armed with a new and deeper understanding of his body, delivery, and pitch repertoire, Tomlin sought a fresh opportunity with a “forward-thinking” organization that could offer him the sort of sports science resources that he took advantage of at Driveline. He believes he has found that with the Brewers and has already spent time immersing himself in the TrackMan data that the org is able to generate when he - or any other pitcher - throws off the mound in Maryvale.
Tomlin has always possessed one elite skill - his plus-plus command of the baseball. In fact, no active, qualified starting pitcher has allowed a lower walk rate than Tomlin’s cumulative 1.33 BB/9 dating back to the outset of his career in 2010 (he’s actually allowed more homers (167) than he’s issued walks (133) during his nine MLB seasons). Now, the veteran right-hander is looking to pair that strength with a more effective and efficient pitch mix based upon the greater knowledge he has gained regarding his arsenal, a process with which the Brewers’ front office is surely excited about helping him undertake. “You don’t really want to be a dinosaur and be extinct in this game. If you don’t evolve with the times in baseball, it will leave you behind.”
Josh Tomlin stepped to the rubber yesterday for the first time in a game setting while donning a Brewers uniform, getting the start in Milwaukee’s 10-1 Cactus League victory over the Rangers. He looked sharp, firing a scoreless inning with a strikeout during his unofficial team debut. Tomlin figures to get plenty more opportunities this spring so long as he continues to perform, and the new tricks that this old dog has learned make him a compelling candidate to earn a spot among the team’s spate of out-getters when they break camp and head back to the Cream City.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus