An injury only hurts a team as much as the replacement lets it. The Dodgers were able to withstand their record-setting number of injuries because of what they had behind the guys who got hurt. Not every team has the luxury of being able to simply plug a Julio Urias or a Brandon McCarthy into the rotation when their top starters go down. And so when Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar each suffered season-ending injuries for the Cleveland Indians in the final month of the season, it was Josh Tomlin who was forced back into the postseason rotation picture, casting doubt on Cleveland’s chances of a deep October run. It’s also been Josh Tomlin who’s held two of baseball’s most imposing lineups — Boston and now Toronto — to three runs in two starts and helped the Indians come within two games of their first World Series appearance in 20 years.
It’s difficult to completely fault Tomlin’s doubters. By the end of August, he’d pitched himself out of Cleveland’s rotation, with a 4.89 ERA and a 5.24 FIP over 25 starts, and even during his best stretches, Tomlin’s rarely looked like much more than a home run-prone, back-end innings eater. Despite that, he’s held the Red Sox and Blue Jays at bay, and now has a 1.98 ERA in six starts since returning to the rotation. The secret, at least in the postseason? Pitching nothing like himself:
The adjustment started in the Boston game. It reached a pinnacle against Toronto. Tomlin’s worst start of the season came against the Blue Jays, back on August 20. He gave up six earned runs in 4.1 innings on nine hits, with three of them leaving the yard. Here’s the pitches that the Blue Jays hit:
- cutter (home run)
- cutter (home run)
- four-seam fastball
So Tomlin mostly scrapped the cutter, and when he did go to it, he played careful.
“I think maybe you change your approach a little bit the second time you face them, if you get to face them a second time,” Tomlin said. “He might crush a cutter … but if I can tease that hot spot a little bit with that pitch and try to get him to go after it, then I can do that.”
Instead, he threw a career-high 36 curveballs. He generated a career-high 87% ground balls, having never previously topped 68% in a single game in his career. According to work done by our own Jeff Zimmerman, cutters and four-seam fastballs are the pitch types which generate the most fly balls, while curveballs and sinkers are the pitches that most often get hit on the ground. Facing lineups that could kill him with homers, Tomlin simply traded his fly ball pitches for his ground ball pitches.
“It’s going to be tough for me to sit there and throw 87-88 to those guys all game long and be successful,” Tomlin said.
“You’ve got to keep the ball down with them,” catcher Roberto Perez said. “They’re known power hitters over there, they’ve got a pretty good lineup. If you keep the ball down, you’re going to have success.”
Tomlin executed the gameplan by not giving the Blue Jays the pitches they could lift, and he executed the gameplan by keeping those ground ball-inducing curves down in the zone, where they actually turn into grounders:
One curve was elevated all day. That went to Ezequiel Carrera, and it went for a second called strike. Everything else stayed in the lower-half and beyond. Tomlin, lately, has been spinning his curve as well as he can. He’s got more vertical drop on the pitch over these last two starts than in any single month of his career. He’s kept it lower in the zone than ever before.
“Sometimes you find that slot and find that rhythm later in the season and maybe a pitch isn’t as effective later on as it was early in the season,” Tomlin said. “To me it was just find the grip and stay with it.”
In the fifth inning, he went 1-2-3 with two strikeouts, needing just nine pitches to retire the side. Those nine pitches were: six curveballs, two changeups, one fastball.
The inning-ending strikeout to Michael Saunders went like this:
Tomlin credits the gameplan to Perez. After being asked when he knew his curveball was on against the Blue Jays, he quipped, “When ‘Berto kept making me throw it. He made it good. He kept calling it and calling it.” When Perez was asked about the gameplan, he credited pitching coach Mickey Callaway. “We’ve got a good scouting report on their lineup,” Perez said. “We just stuck with the plan. Mickey does a really good job on scouting reports and how we’re going to attack these guys. It worked twice.”
Perez said twice, because the scouting report goes back to Game 1, with Corey Kluber. Kluber didn’t dramatically ramp up his breaking ball usage, but he did stick to the other part of the scouting report: going away. The Blue Jays bats love their pitches in. Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista’s hot spots all live on the inner-third of the plate. Blue Jays righties owned baseball’s second-highest isolated slugging percentage on inside pitches, and the only team above them was the Rockies, on a leaderboard where the numbers aren’t park-adjusted.
So Kluber and Tomlin kept their pitches away:
The gameplanning starts hours, days, weeks, months in advance, but the gameplan doesn’t get the outs. The gameplan is the work of the advanced scouting department, the pitching coaches, the catcher, the pitcher. Only one of those guys puts the ball over the plate. A great gameplan can only mean so much without execution. Every team feels like they’ve got a great gameplan against the opposition, particularly in October, when the stakes are higher and the scouting reports intensify. Cleveland’s approach against Toronto’s lineup has been clear: keep the ball away, and for Tomlin in particular, throw the curve early and often, and stay away from the cutter that burned him back in August. Gameplans are just words, but only until they’re brought to life on the mound.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.