When Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco went down in September, the conventional thinking around baseball circles was that Cleveland’s season was going to end quickly. Their suddenly thin rotation was bound to get exposed in the harsh October landscape, and they’d be lucky to win a game not started by Corey Kluber.
Well, baseball baseballed and once again made the conventional thinking look silly. Cleveland’s played five post season games, and they haven’t lost yet. Two of those five games have been started by Josh Tomlin, and while he hasn’t pitched especially deep into those games, he has pitched well enough, long enough to hand a lead to to the Tribe’s stellar bullpen both times. That’s a winning formula for Cleveland, and the scary thing for Toronto is that if he’s asked to do it again in Game 6, he has a pretty good shot of pulling it off.
See, the whole idea when Salazar and Carrasco were knocked out was that the soft underbelly of Cleveland’s rotation was going to get pounded - But what if Tomlin isn’t really part of that soft underbelly? I don’t mean the career Josh Tomlin, I mean the guy pitching right now.
For some perspective, here’s a month by month breakdown of his 2016 ERA and OPS against numbers:
Something should jump out immediately. August was a disaster!
Now on one hand, it’s nice to know he can get lit up like that, but it also poses a problem. Tomlin has one bad month skewing his 2016 totals, and if we concede that the Josh Tomlin pitching right now isn’t the August Josh Tomlin, then it’s possible that Cleveland actually still has a serviceable No. 2 starter even with their short handed rotation.
If we throw out August, Tomlin has a 3.14 ERA on the year (the exact same figure as Corey Kluber) while holding opponents to a .710 OPS. In the 23 games Tomlin started outside of August, Cleveland is 18-5, and that number now jumps to 20-5 if we include his two playoff starts.
This is a much, much better pitcher than your typical No. 5 who has to start in the LCS because the guys in front of him got injured.
Now with that said, what happened in Game 2 shouldn’t have happened. Tomlin went completely off script from his usual agenda. In the regular season, Tomlin used his curve ball just 15 percent of the time, but in Saturday’s game, he used it 43 percent of the time.
The result was a bevy of ground balls Tomlin’s never come close to producing during any game of his entire career. Here’s a link to Tomlin’s career game logs sorted by ground ball percentage (topped by a 68.4 percent ground ball game in April of 2011 against the Red Sox). Tomlin posted an 87 percent ground ball rate in Game 2 of the ALCS. Compare that to his career ground ball rate of 39 percent, and this was about as ugly of a black swan as this game could have possibly produced for the Blue Jays.
A typical Josh Tomlin game involves him filling up the strike zone (his walk rate of just 2.8 percent is the lowest among qualified starters in 2016) and giving up the long ball (his home run / fly ball rate of 17.7 percent is the fourth highest among qualified starters in 2016). However, when 87 percent of the balls that go in play are on the ground, it’s pretty hard to hit home runs, and just like that, the Blue Jays lost their favorite method of scoring runs.
If the Blue Jays are able to send this series back to Cleveland, they’re slated to face Tomlin again in Game 6, and while I wouldn’t expect a repeat of the ground ball fest we saw here, he also presents a pretty big problem if the guy from August doesn’t show up.
The best way for the Blue Jays to beat the Tribe on paper is to jump on their starter, take an early lead, and take their bullpen out of the equation. Here’s the way the rest of the series is slated to match up (for now):
Game 3 in Toronto: Trevor Bauer vs. Marcus Stroman
Game 4 in Toronto: Mike Clevinger vs. Aaron Sanchez
Game 5 in Toronto (if necessary): Corey Kluber vs. Marco Estrada
Game 6 in Cleveland (if necessary): Josh Tomlin vs. J.A. Happ
Game 7 in Cleveland (if necessary): Trevor Bauer (with all hands on deck including Kluber) vs. Marcus Stroman
The Blue Jays need to find a way to win four of those games if they want to get to the World Series, and while the two most advantageous match ups on there appear to be the next two games, I’m pretty sure we’re going to see Kluber two more times in some capacity if this goes seven games.
So if that’s that case and the rotation holds, the Jays are probably going to have to beat Tomlin in Game 6 to get out of this alive, and unfortunately, that’s going to be a much more difficult task than it sounded like coming into the series.
But first things first, the Blue Jays really need to win these next two games. If they don’t, Josh Tomlin will be the least of their problems.