Low strikeout and ground-ball rates — not to mention a propensity to give up the long ball — spells disaster for most pitchers. But Josh Tomlin isn‘t most pitchers. The Indians’ right-hander succeeds despite those characteristics, in large part because no one does a better job limiting walks. Tomlin, who is 11-5 with a 4.08 ERA this season, has a major-league best 1.16 BB/9 and recently went 20 consecutive games in which he walked one batter or fewer.
Whether he can continue his current success is debatable — his .249 BABiP probably isn’t sustainable — but that’s OK with the 26-year-old former 19th-round pick. Tomlin is used to people telling him he isn’t good enough to pitch at this level. And he enjoys proving them wrong.
David Laurila: Is pitching fun?
Josh Tomlin: Yes, it’s very fun. It’s almost like a chess game, especially when you’re out there with stuff like I have. I can’t just power through guys, or anything like that. I have to mix and match, and try to keep hitters off balance.
I don’t have any one pitch that’s outstanding, but I feel that I have five quality pitches that I can throw for strikes. I have two variations of a fastball — a four-seam and a two-seam — a cutter, a changeup and a curveball.
I mainly throw a lot of cutters and fastballs. Over the course of a game, if you count the cutter as a third variation of my fastball, I’ll typically throw more than 80 percent fastballs.
DL: Is that a high percentage for someone who doesn’t throw especially hard?
JT: I think so, yeah, for a guy who usually doesn’t throw above 90 and every now and then, on a good day, might hit 92. I usually sit 88-89. If I throw 100 pitches in a game, I’ll throw about 10 or 11 curveballs, four or five changeups, 30 or 40 cutters and the rest two- and four-seam fastballs.
DL: How much has your repertoire evolved since you signed?
JT: A lot. When I first got [to pro ball], I didn’t have a cutter. I learned a cutter when I was in Kinston in 2008. I was in the bullpen at that point and became mainly a fastball-cutter guy, with an occasional curveball. I didn’t throw a changeup at all because I was usually in there for just an inning.
Learning how to throw a cutter has kind of made me throw my fastball more. My cutter looks almost like a four-seam fastball — which I throw — so guys will react to that and it breaks out of the zone, or misses the barrel a little bit.
DL: Who taught you the cutter?
JT: Greg Hibbard, who was the pitching coach in Kinston at the time. The main reason I started throwing it was that my curveball and slider were pretty much the same velocity, they just had slightly different tilts to the ball. They were so similar that [the Indians] wanted me to either throw my slider harder or get rid of it altogether.
I also didn’t have a pitch that separated me. So we started developing a cutter, trying to get [hitters] thinking fastball, thinking fastball, and then having it cut at the last minute. I was trying to make my slider harder and it turned into a cutter. It’s kind of what changed my level of performance.
I was in the pen in Kinston for pretty much that whole year. I made nine starts there that season, plus one in Triple-A. Like I said, out of the pen I was mainly a fastball-cutter guy. When I was [in the bullpen] my velocity kind of increased a little bit. I was at 93 and could touch 94, but when I went back to starting I couldn’t rely on just two pitches anymore. I had to be a guy who threw four pitches for strikes and kept hitters off balance.
DL: How much do you rely on scouting reports and video?
JT: Actually, not a whole lot. There aren’t too many guys in the big leagues who are like me. If Justin Masterson pitched the day before and I saw that a certain guy couldn’t hit a fastball inside, well, his fastball was sinking at 97 mph. A guy not hitting an inside fastball off Justin Masterson gives me no report at all, because I don’t have 97 with sink. I kind of just watch swings against myself and see what guys are trying to do. For me, a lot of [pitch selection] is based on reading swings.
The first at bat usually dictates what I throw to a hitter [in later at bats]. Situations come into play, too. With runners in scoring position, a lot of hitters get more aggressive. But that first at-bat is really going to dictate if I’m going to pitch them a certain way. I try to change sequences throughout the whole game, not wanting to get predictable.
DL: What have you and [pitching coach] Tim Belcher been talking about recently?
JT: My approach, and what approach the hitters are having against me. My last five or six starts, I’ve kind of got the feeling that I’m getting a reputation. I’m not walking anybody and guys are trying to take advantage of that early in the count. They’re changing their approach with me, swinging the bat early as opposed to giving me a first-pitch strike, or second-pitch strike. They’re attacking, not wanting to get in pitcher’s counts. I have to adjust to that by throwing an effective ball early if I think they‘re swinging.
We’ve been talking about that, and about how I should stay with my strengths and not pitch to a hitter’s weakness if it’s my weakness. I have to stick to my strengths and go right after guys, or I might leave a ball over the plate and get hurt.
DL: Can a pitcher learn just as much from an experienced catcher as he can from another pitcher?
JT: I think so. A good example of that is Dave Duncan with the Cardinals. He was a catcher and has been a pitching coach in the big leagues for a long time. A good catcher can help you out. He can read swings with you and he knows you and what you can do. He can get you on the same page and into a good rhythm. It’s a lot easier to work with a guy who can do that.
I also ask [hitters] what they think. I talk to Michael Brantley a lot. I ask him about what he, as a left-handed hitter, would sit on in certain situations. If he faced me, what would he do? What would his approach be? He tells me what he thinks and that helps out a lot. Knowing how a hitter is likely to approach me allows me to try to pitch them backwards.
DL: How important is finger placement, and pressure on the seams, when you deliver a pitch?
JT: It’s huge. The cutter is the biggest feel pitch I can possibly have. It’s all how it feels in my hand and how it feels coming out of my hand. Last night I gave up a home run to Carl Crawford; I was trying to go cutter inside and it didn’t feel good coming off my fingertips. It kind of backed up right down the middle of the plate and he didn’t miss it.
I know my cutter is good when I can get that feel and bore it into left-handed hitters, on their hands, up and down — back foot them or put it up under their hands. If I do that, I can get weak contact and hopefully a quick out. But with my cutter, yeah, it’s just how I put it in my hand and how it feels. It’s a big feel pitch for me.
It’s kind of hard to explain, but there are times when the ball feels like it’s a bowling ball and there are times when it feels like a golf ball. For the most part, the feel I have on a given day will [dictate] how I adjust on the seam. If it feels better on a different part of the seam — on a different part of the ball — that’s what I’ll do.
DL: Does your GB/FB ratio matter to you?
JT: As long as it’s an out, I don’t care. I’ve always been a guy who has given up home runs. I’ve been kind of a fly ball pitcher; I’m not a big sinkerball guy. I’d definitely like to have more ground balls than I do this year, but I also understand that part of my game is to get pop flies. I’m not a ground ball pitcher, per se, like Justin or Fausto [Carmona]. I don’t have a sinker like that, so I have to be as fine as I can throughout the whole game to miss the barrel and not give up home runs.
I kind of look at it as “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” If I’m giving up home runs, that’s fine as long as they’re solo shots. You always hear that saying, “Solo shots won’t hurt you,” and I think that’s just a product of me going after hitters. If I can get 10 fly ball outs, that’s just as good as 10 ground-ball outs. I like to elevate the fastball inside to guys, and if they can get to it and hit a home run, fine. But a lot of times I’ll get a broken bat and a lazy fly ball for an out. Along with not giving up walks, getting weak contact on a fly ball is kind of the pitcher that I am.
DL: Veteran pitchers often talk about when they went from being a thrower to having a real understanding of how to pitch. At the age of 26, do you already get it?
JT: I don’t think you ever completely get it. I know that guys will say that something finally clicked, but to say I get it… I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to say that. I get what type of pitcher I am. I understand what I’m not and what I can’t do. I know I have to throw four pitches for strikes every time I’m out there. If I’m not doing that, I’m going to get hurt, because I don’t have the same kind of stuff as most of the guys starting in the big leagues.
DL: Are you the Dustin Pedroia of pitchers — a guy driven to succeed by people saying you lack the size and tools to play at this level?
JT: I kind of feel that I am. I’ve never been a top prospect. I was never a top-100 prospect in Baseball America, or in baseball, period. I’ve had to succeed everywhere I’ve been to get a chance, but that’s my competitive nature. I want to win everywhere I go. I don’t care about individual stats as much as I probably should. I don’t really care about my ERA, although I obviously want it to be good, as long as I’m giving the team a chance to win.
It’s all about the conviction you have on the mound. If I throw the right pitch, in the right spot, it’s not going to get hit hard. Having conviction on every pitch can make somebody successful even if they don’t have good stuff. I’ve been compared to guys like Paul Byrd and Charlie Nagy, and any time you can be compared to somebody who had a good career in the big leagues it’s an honor. It’s an absolute compliment.
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.