Friday, April 22, 2011

Surprise Starters: Josh Tomlin

The Indians are off to an incredible start, this much is obvious. The team leads the American League in runs scored with 99, and their .759 team OPS is third in the league, their pitchers ERA of 3.27 is third best in the AL, and their +18.8 UZR/150 leads all of baseball.

In short, they're excelling in every phase of the game.

Some of those reasons are obvious and have, rightly, gotten a lot of attention both here at CiF and elsewhere. But one reason for the Indians early season success that I think is being over looked is the performance of Josh Tomlin.

In 2010, a then 25 year old Tomlin made his Major League debut, and started 12 games for the Indians. Over 73 innings he compiled a 4.56 ERA which matched up almost perfectly with his 4.59 FIP. It's the kind of production you would expect of a #4 or #5 starter. Nothing about his performance stood out in any particular way. He posted a strong walk rate of 2.34, but still more good than great, and both his K rate (5.30) and GB rates (28.4%) were thoroughly uninspiring.

By in large, what the Indians got out of Tomlin in 2010 was precisely what should've been expected given his Minor League track record. With a career 7.8 K rate and 1.9 BB rate and fastball that worked in the high 80s, he never really stood out. The one exception to his performance in 2010 was in the GB rate department. While his MiLB career 44% GB rate suggested he would actually be somewhat flyball prone at the next level, it wasn't to the extent we saw in his debut. Indeed, should he have had enough innings to qualify his 28.4% rate would've been just a tick better than Kevin Slowey's MLB-worst 28.3% rate.

Still, by posting a respect FIP and giving his team just over six innings per start, he profiled as a solid back-end starter and this spring he earned another crack at the rotation. He's certainly taken advantage through this early point in the season.

Through this early point in the year Tomlin's 2.34 ERA is 10th best in the league and tops in The Central, his 27IP 12th best in the league. Even though were talking about just four starts, it's still an incredible performance and certainly rates as one of the (many) key reasons for the Indians early surge to the top of The Central standings.

Of course, we all know he won't maintain this level of production. His peripherals, epitomized by his -1.90 ERA-FIP split, show he simply isn't this good of a pitcher. Instead he's been the beneficiary of an absurdly good .187 BABIP and equally stunning 86.5% LOB rate.

Which isn't to say he isn't a better pitcher than last year, he has been. Especially in the ground ball rate category, Tomlin has shown a real and very significant improvement over his performance in 2010, with a GB rate of 43% - essentially a 15% improvement and much more in line with his MiLB performance.

If you combine his K/BB peripherals from last year - which are essentially unchanged in 2011, and pair them with this improved GB rate, suddenly his FIP goes from the 4.60 range down into the 4.20 range - and he stands at 4.23 as of today. That's essentially what a team should expect out of  #3 quality starter.

So while Tomlin doesn't throw hard, and doesn't excel in any one given category, it might not be as absurd as one thinks to consider him a solid Major #3 or #4 MLB starter over the next few seasons. If so, he'll provide the Indians with much more than what would otherwise amount to replacement level production (typical of a #5 starter) and could instead chip in perhaps 2 WAR of his own and help make the Indians early season success more sustainable.

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