The Little Cowboy’s Not-So-Little Secret

Josh Tomlin’s success in 2016 has been a surprise to everyone but him. He was fighting for a spot in the starting rotation in the spring, and now he’s 7-1 with a 3.79 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP.

How does Tomlin pull it off? He doesn’t overpower hitters with a flaming fastball nor does he have an unhittable off-speed pitch. His success can be found in a single pitch: the humble cut fastball.

The same pitch that allowed both Mariano Rivera and Cliff Lee to thrive is fueling Tomlin this year. The cutter has replaced the regular four-seam fastball as Tomlin’s go-to pitch as so far, according to PITCHf/x compiled by Brooks Baseball, he has thrown the pitch the most of any in his arsenal, 40% of the time. The usage pattern becomes especially clear in later innings, as Tomlin’s cutter percentage increases to 44% when facing hitters a third time compared to 38% when facing them the first time. His four-seam usage drops from 39% the first time through an order to 32% the third time through.

As the game goes along and Tomlin uses more cutters, hitters find less success against him. The first time through the order, they hit with a slash line of .293/.321/.560. This decreases all the way down to .182/.211/.327 the third time they face him. Tomlin’s increased cutter usage later in games helps him succeed at a time when other pitchers start to fail.

Additionally, Tomlin succeeds by not walking batters – he leads the AL in both strikeout to walk ratio (6.17) and walks per nine innings (0.99) – and his cutter is how he’s been preventing runners from earning free passes. Only 1.8% of plate appearances that end with cutters are walks, lower than his overall rate of 2.7%, and 75% of his cutters are strikes, his highest rate with any pitch.

If there is one cause for worry, it’s been Tomlin’s tendency to give up homers. Cutters are a fly ball pitch, so if he doesn’t locate well opponents can easily hit it out of the park. In every start but one he’s given up a homer, adding up to ten on the year. Four of those ten homers have come off of cutters.

His high home run rate has led to a high FIP of 4.52, almost a run higher than his ERA. Normally a higher FIP is an indication the pitcher will regress. However, Tomlin doesn’t give up the costly three-run homer that FIP predicts he will. Because of his low walk rate, all home runs allowed by Tomlin since the start of 2015 have scored less than two runs. Thus, the regression will not happen.

Tomlin will not finish the season undefeated nor will he finish it as the Tribe’s best pitcher. Though, if his start to the season is any indication, it looks like it will be a career year for the Little Cowboy, all thanks to a slight change in pitch selection.

Photo: Ron Schwane/Associated Press

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