Josh Tomlin’s K/9 has risen from 4.84 to 7.01 this season, but that doesn’t mean the Cleveland Indians right-hander is suddenly capable of overpowering hitters. He still needs to out-think them, as well as continue to display the outstanding command for which he is known. Lacking plus stuff, he also has to effectively vary his pitch sequences against each hitter.
Tomlin delved into his memory bank to give an example of how he mixes and matches. Hitter “X,” whom he faced three times in this particular game, bats from the right side.
Tomlin on Hitter X’s first at bat: “He’s a pretty patient guy, so I wanted to start off with a fastball down and away to get ahead early. The next pitch was a cutter away, to see if he was looking fastball and for something out over the plate. He fouled the ball off. That made the count 0-2, so I went with a fastball in, off the plate, for a ball. I wanted to see if he’d be leaning out over the plate, looking for an off-speed pitch or a cutter. I wasn’t trying to come in close enough to hit him, but rather, just close enough to see if he was diving. If he’s diving, it’s going to look closer to him than it actually is and he’s going to bail a little bit. I wanted to back him up.
“After standing him up, I went curveball and got a strikeout. The reports didn’t say that he’d chase, but they do say that he’ll get in swing mode every now and again. He’s a professional hitter, but it was one of those curveballs that started on the same plane as my fastball — kind of in and off the plate. It probably would have been a called strike if he hadn’t swung. As much as anything, I think it caught him off guard that I threw it for a strike in that situation. He took kind of an emergency hack.”
On the second at bat: “The second time I faced him, there was a guy on with two out. I went with a first-pitch curveball. It was a get-me-over curveball and I threw it for a strike. Then I went fastball away — kind of up and away — for a ball. Then a cutter down and away, and I got a ground-ball.
“I had faced him before and knew that he will swing at that. I also knew that he’ll sit on it at times and can drive it the other way pretty well. I wanted to get in a situation where he’s probably swinging, and I could make a good pitch that was borderline — maybe even a little out of the zone — that I could hopefully get bad contact on. Fortunately, I did.”
On the third at bat: “His third time up, I started with a fastball away that he took for a strike. My second pitch was a curveball in the dirt, for a ball. The third pitch was a fastball up and away that was actually supposed to be down and away — I simply missed my location. He fouled it off.
“I felt like we had a pretty good sequence going to where I could front-door a cutter, so that’s what I threw. It backed him off the plate, but was actually a strike. He hadn’t seen a cutter inside from me yet — the others I had thrown to him were away — and I made a good pitch. It started out at his front hip and ended up cutting in for a called third strike.”
On varying his sequences: “On each of his at bats, I went with a difference sequence. A lot of it was feel — basically how I read swings — or how I read how someone is taking pitches against me. If I see a guy leaning out over the plate, a better pitch might be to back him off the plate with something inside. That changes his eyesight a little bit from sitting on something away.
“Reports play into what I do, as well, but the book on this guy is basically that he can hit. For me, it was a matter of making sure I kept the ball down and read what he was trying to do.
“The book is out on me, so hitters are going to be aggressive. If I can make pitches that look like they’re going to be strikes — and at the last second aren‘t — I’m going to get more swings and misses and weak contact. I need to consistently make good pitches to get guys out. This particular hitter will take you out of the yard if you‘re not careful, and fortunately I was able to execute pretty well.”
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.