Josh Tomlin will be on the mound tonight for the Indians. It will be the 29-year-old right-hander’s first start in a Cleveland uniform since he underwent Tommy John surgery late in the 2012 season. The opportunity is well-earned. Tomlin has thrown 17 scoreless innings in his past two outings for Triple-A Columbus and has a 2.06 ERA overall.
Tribe fans can expect to see a revamped-velocity version of the pitcher who went 12-7, 4.25 in 2011. Tomlin still relies on cutters and command – he’ll never be confused with a fire-baller – but he’s throwing harder than he has at any point in his life. More importantly, he’s throwing free and easy.
“The injury prevented me from doing the things I need to do,” Tomlin said. “In 2011, maybe a month after the All-Star break, I started feeling like something wasn’t right. I tried to pitch through it late in 2011 and early 2012, but couldn’t command the ball and couldn’t cut it when I wanted to. I didn’t have the extension to get the ball down and away to righties. Subconsciously, I knew it was going to hurt when I did that, so I kind of cut the ball off trying to get it there. It got to the point where righties could eliminate a pitch away and sit middle in, and lefties knew I was going to work away. When a hitter can take away one side of the plate against me, it’s going to be tough for me to compete. Now I’m able to get the ball to that side and move pitches around to keep hitters off balance. That’s my game.”
Tomlin’s radar gun readers are also healthier. His fastball sat in the upper 80s before the surgery. Now it’s north of 90 mph.
“My velocity has crept up a little bit,” Tomlin said. “I’ve been 91-93 throughout the game with my fastball. My arm speed is better since the surgery. The crispness of my pitches is back to what they were before. Right now I feel like I’m a 15 or 16-year-old kid playing catch again. It doesn’t hurt, I don’t feel it, I don’t think about it. I just take the ball and pitch.”
Tomlin was reminded in spring training that he still has to “pitch” to be effective. He’s never been a power guy and a little extra octane isn’t going to change that.
“I got myself hurt against that Abreu guy with the White Sox,” Tomlin said. “I got him down 1-2 and tried to blow a fastball by him, in. I basically tried to throw the ball too hard – I guess I was overconfident – and left it over the plate. He hit it pretty good. That’s something I had to learn in spring training: How to hone in my new-found velocity and new-found feeling. I can throw pretty hard right now – at least for me – but throwing the ball by someone isn’t my game. I need to set them up to where 89-90 is still effective. It’s about making a quality pitch and missing a barrel, not lighting up the radar gun or trying to get too cute with my fastball.”
Tomlin’s cutter is his most attractive offering. It is also the shapeliest. Thanks to his rebuilt arm, he can tempt hitters with it in two different ways.
“I’m able to do things with my cutter now,” explained Tomlin. “I’m able to make it move horizontally if I want it to. If I get a guy 1-2 with a fastball, I can make it a little bigger. I also have one with more of a slider depth to it. Basically, I’m throwing two different cutters – one more horizontal to miss the barrel and one with a little more depth to try to get ground balls, maybe even a swing-and-miss. But for me, the cutter is a pitch to get weak contact early in the count to keep my pitch count low.”
Tomlin’s repertoire includes a curveball. It’s his third-best pitch and yet another that’s been rejuvenated by his surgery.
“My curveball is the pitch that’s probably been helped the most,” Tomlin said. “Again, I’m not thinking about it. I can grip it without that feeling of ‘I hope it doesn’t hurt.’ The conviction I have behind all of my pitches is the biggest change. It’s not like it was when I was struggling and my arm was bothering me a little bit. Not to make excuses, or anything like that, but the conviction I had then is nothing near what I have now.”
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.