Second Thoughts Game #62: Cleveland 8, Texas 3
The Indians offense is trying to stay hot, and the Arlington weather is too willing to oblige.
After a 4-6 loss on Friday, Cleveland's 8-3 victory over Texas on Saturday might appear to be a substantial fluctuation. However, given the quality of opposing pitching, comparing Friday's matchup against Yu Darvish with Saturday's matchup against depth starter Nick Tepesch, as well as the base-runner totals in each game, 14 on Friday compared to 16 on Saturday, and the underlying numbers suggest that consistency has come to the offense, even if the runs - as they frequently are - remain less so.
Cleveland Starter Josh Tomlin (8 IP, 3 R/ER, 7 H, 0 BB, 5 K, 105 pitches, 72 strikes, 9 SwStr) put up another characteristic performance, proving himself curious and effective; he was not curiously effective, however, as his 2014 success have clear causes that, even if they weren't forecasted, indicate unprecedented sustainability for his success.
The New Tomlin
Spring Training numbers frequently portend either little or nothing: barring a select handful of stats, spring training numbers mean very little. The two stats that do have something like predictive power are walk and strikeout rates - in these stats, Josh Tomlin showed a completely uncharacteristic strikeout competency, whiffing 19 in 20.1 IP, the 32nd-highest total among all spring training participants.
Regardless of one's own evaluations of Tomlin holistically, Josh Tomlin has never been a strikeout pitcher. Josh Tomlin had a distinct skill set that got him to the major leagues, and strikeouts were not a part of it. A 4.92 K/9 in his first 343.2 innings in the majors (that is, his debut until the end of 2013) is no one's idea of a strikeout pitcher. To compensate for that, his walk rate needed to be pristine; entering 2014, his 1.7 BB/9 was good, but the question was whether it would be good enough to compensate for Tomlin's inability to strikeout batters and deliver a league-average performance. Based on most predictive pitching metrics, only an improvement in strikeout or walk rate would have effected an improvement in overall performance.
So it was spoken; so it came to be. Tomlin's control had frequently been perceived as elite, though up until 2014, that perception had well oversold his actual achievements; it had been merely a very good 1.7 BB/9 up until 2014, a rate insufficient to compensate for his strikeout rate. Thus far in 2014, however, reality has caught up that reputation: Tomlin's 1.12 BB/9 is now fifth among all major league pitchers with 40+ IP.
Tomlin's current walk rate is necessary to counteract what was, through the end of 2013, one of the worst strikeout rates in the majors. Josh Tomlin's rather shocking improvement in this regard, up to 7.81 K/9, only help .
Even before the start of the season, Josh Tomlin's slow curve was fearsome; the difficulty, however, came from its typical inability to generate whiffs; this fact continued even into 2013. Tomlin's curveball had had tremendous movement before 2014, yet even early in the year, his curve had not induced whiffs at a rate one would expect, given its extreme drop - through the end of May, the pitch induced whiffs at only an 8.2% rate. That rate was below-average among all pitches as a whole, and quite poor for an out pitch (albeit an out pitch that Tomlin has thrown quite effectively for strikes).
June, however, has seen the pitch thrown for increased effectiveness as a whiff-inducing pitch. Contrasted with May's 8.2% rate, Tomlin's hammer has induced twelve whiffs over its 35 uses for a 34.3% whiff rate - an extremely good rate in absolute terms, not merely relative to Tomlin's past. While Tomlin's previous outing, on May 26th against the White Sox, gathered eight strikeouts on only seven swinging strikes - a feat extremely difficult to replicate - Tomlin's June 1st outing saw 10 swinging strikes accompanying his 8 strikeouts, a much healthier rate indicative of continued high-strikeout performances.
While Tomlin's five strikeouts over his eight innings Saturday was one of his worse strikeout performances as of late, he missed bats at a completely serviceable clip. This fact, in addition to the complete lack of walks allowed and the good fortune necessary for a flyballer like Tomlin to not allow a home run at a start in Arlington, led to a performance that was even better in fielding-independent terms than the 3 ER over 8 IP; given Tomlin's performance before 2013, one should not believe his strikeout rate will remain above-average; if he can continue to approximate his current walk rate, however, Josh Tomlin won't need to.
The Still-Enigmatic Carlos Santana
Including Saturday's 2-2 performance with 2 BBs and 1 HR, Carlos Santana is hitting .171. When he puts the ball in play, Santana is hitting .181, the worst clip among all qualified batters. Saying 'Carlos Santana has hit poorly' is one of the least-controversial comments one can make about Indians' hitters.
Despite his struggle on balls in play, Santana's wRC+ is 99; in other words, Santana's offense is almost exactly average, fuelled almost entirely by the fact that Santana's walk rate, at 20.2% of his plate appearances, is the highest in the majors.
None of this information is new, of course: Santana has always had trouble on balls in play. As a lefty, his pull tendencies were far too pronounced to not be exploited by the shift. Santana's walk rates have always been extremely high. His offense on Saturday, instrumental in Cleveland's victory, was composed primarily of a two-run home run, but equally critically, of two walks and a pulled line drive single. Yet his 2014 has taken Santana's already unusual offensive profile to new and absurd (Sisyphian?) heights. To wit:
- Santana's OBP (.342) is now twice as high as his batting average (.171).
- His on-base percentage is .025 higher than league average despite a batting average .029 below the Mendoza line.
- His Slugging Percentage minus BA, known as Isolated power (.155, lg. avg. .141) is now closer to his batting average than is his batting average to the Mendoza line.
- If a pitcher only faced Carlos Santana with his 46 Ks, 46 BBs, and 7 HRs and 149 outs made, that pitcher would have a FIP of 5.81.
The explanation for Santana's batting average struggles are fairly simple, and they have been: he's hit fewer line drives on the year, he has been very heavily-shifted as a pull-happy left-hander, and he's gotten unlucky. The first and last are very likely to reverse themselves in fairly short order, but his pull tendencies as a lefty make a league average batting average on balls in play highly unlikely.
That said, Carlos Santana has never needed a league-average BABIP to serve as a net benefit for the offense. His 2013 season had a league average BABIP and saw him become one of the better offensive players in the league. Rebounding to career numbers leaves Santana a very good holistic offensive player, and given the way the rest of the lineup has responded in the past week, particularly in Texas on both Friday and Saturday, 'holistically good' is enough to make the 2014 Indians offense as scary as advertised.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
Looking to next year, it will be interesting to see rotation order with Kluber, Bauer, Tomlin and the others in the mix...
Unlike a lot of posters, I think fastball speed is significantly overrated, and I absolutely love pitchers who can effectively change speeds and have great control. I'll take those guys, like Tomlin, any day of the week over those 95+ MPH guys who have difficulty with location and make 100 pitches in 5 or less innings.
It just goes to prove you can never have too many starters. Who'd have thought last September that House would be in the rotation?