When the Milwaukee Brewers inked Josh Tomlin to a minor league deal earlier this month, they acquired more than a 34-year-old right-hander coming off a train wreck of a year. They brought on a pitcher with a new and better understanding of his craft. His career badly in need of a jumpstart, Tomlin trained at Driveline from January 8-17.
Train wreck is a fair description of his 2018 campaign. As always, he threw plenty of strikes — Tomlin’s 1.24 walk rate is the lowest in baseball over the last eight years (min. 800 innings) — but far too many of them got whacked. In 70.1 tumultuous innings with the Cleveland Indians, Tomlin posted a 7.16 FIP and was taken deep 25 times. Cut loose at season’s end, he knew that something needed to change if he had any chance of returning to a big league rotation.
His visit to Driveline could prove to be a panacea for his troubles. Tomlin not only learned how his delivery had gotten out of whack, he discovered that he’d been underutilizing what might be one of his best pitches. As for the analytical data he’s seen in recent seasons, let’s just say that it’s no longer just a bunch of numbers and dots arranged on a chart.
Tomlin talked about what he learned, and what it could mean for his career, prior to throwing a bullpen session yesterday morning at Milwaukee’s spring training facility in Maryvale, Arizona.
Tomlin on correcting a delivery flaw: “I went to Driveline first and foremost to get a bio-mechanical assessment of my body. They put all of those electrodes on you, those little dots that tell you exactly how your body moves. I wanted to grade myself out. I wanted to grade how my body was moving down the hill. Once we got [the data] back, we could address the things I wasn’t doing well and try to correct them.
“I wanted to go through having cameras watching me from behind, to see exactly how my ball was spinning. When I got the assessment, I learned that the axis was creating more run — more lazy run — than anything else. I needed to work behind the ball a little better, to try to get more hop, more carry.
“A big problem last year was my front leg, my foot plant. When I was landing, I was soft on my front leg, as opposed to being firmer, so that I could lock it out — basically replace this hip with this hip, and get over the ball better. I wasn’t getting through the ball to create that whip, that catapult action. I was landing soft into my hip, and just kind of guiding through my release.
“Coming through creates more spin, and more of that catapult whip action. It helps all of your pitches in the sense that it’s easier to repeat your delivery. When you have a soft front leg, you never know where your release is going to be. I was able to address that. Now it’s easier to get down the mound. My stride length will be a little longer, and I can get over my front side better, creating more extension and an easier arm path. I know what my ball is going to do.
“I was anywhere from 86 to 89 [mph] in my first couple of bullpens — the first bullpen I threw was at Driveline — which I’d never been this early. Last year I was 86-88 the whole year. There were games I’d hit 90, maybe touching 91, but for the most part my velocity was down. I wasn’t using my legs in the proper way.”
On gaining a better understanding of his pitches: “I wanted to go through a pitch-design class. One thing I wanted was to develop a slider. For a slider, I’ve always thought that you manipulate the ball. That’s the complete opposite of what I needed to be doing. It’s actually about staying behind the ball better and kind of cutting it off to create more of a gyro spin. Not really understanding that, and trying to actually see the whole break of the ball, had been hindering me from developing that pitch.
“They can actually grade those things out. It’s like, OK, your ball is spinning at this rpm, at this axis. Here are some of the guys in the league who do that. They have the same kind of tilt. This is how they use it. This is where they start and finish it. The data is sort of your digital thumbprint as a pitcher, so they were looking at my stuff and saying, ‘We’ve seen guys do this with this type of spin’ — balls up, spinning off of that, changeups down and away, cutters off that backdoor. How to sequence it, how to tunnel it.
“I went through two of those classes. I asked them a second time to grade my pitches out. Tow of the trainers there, Sam Briend and Eric Jagers … those guys are studs. All those guys are studs, actually. They said a perfect polar axis on changeup creates more depth. They were like, ‘Think about (Carlos) Carrasco, the axis he has.’ Trevor (Bauer) has been trying to get this axis on his changeup. He’s thrown a thousand changeups already and is trying to get it.”
On his changeup and pitch usage: “What’s interesting is that I’ve always been told that my changeup is my third or fourth best pitch, so I shouldn’t throw it as much. From what I learned, instead of throwing it 2% of the time, maybe I should throw it 20% of the time. That way, instead of 40% fastball, 40% cutter, and 18% curveball, I’m closer to 25, 25, 25, 25. Having a range like that, it’s harder for hitters to eliminate pitches from you. If you’re a three-pitch guy, it’s easier to get into a pattern, especially if one of your pitches isn’t working that day. Then you’re a two-pitch guy. Knowing that I should use my changeup more, I can throw my cutter 25-30% percent of the time, instead of 45-50% of the time, which should make it more effective.
“We’re doing some similar things here [with the Brewers]. They had me on TrackMan the first day. It’s cool, because you can see the cluster of things. You can kind of see the difference of your pitches. You can go, ‘OK, we’ll have more of a depth changeup than a horizontal changeup.’ I can tunnel that better off my fastball than I can slider. Things like that.”
On understanding data and making it actionable: “In the past, I’d get emails sent to me. It would be, ‘Here’s the data.’ There’s a difference between having the data and understanding the data. The better you understand your stuff, the better you can put it into action. You don’t have your eyes telling you that your cutter is your best pitch, when in essence it’s grading out to be your third-best pitch. 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.
“The education they have at Driveline — the way they teach guys what the information actually means — is the most crucial part. There’s information everywhere. TrackMan is at every stadium. It’s easy to go, ‘Here’s the information, player.’ Player X is like, ‘OK, cool. Thank you. What does this mean?’ Player Y could be Trevor Bauer. He knows exactly what all that stuff means, so he can use it and make himself a better pitcher. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.