Nine was the numeral of consequence on Sunday, as the Cleveland Indians scored nine runs, won their 9th straight game, improved to a ridiculous 9-0 on the year against the Detroit Tigers, and notched Josh Tomlin his 9th victory. In a prototypical Little Cowboy performance, Tomlin was brilliant with the exception of three solo homeruns allowed. If it sometimes seems like Josh is one of the most bewilderingly “high-contrast” starting pitchers in baseball history, it’s because he legitimately is. But I’ll get to that in a minute. First… we must take stock of what has become of the Motor City.
Before establishing their own legacies, both Michael Jordan and LeBron James had to start by getting past Detroit—the first big hurdle in each of their roads to the Finals. MJ finally beat the "Bad Boys" in the 1991 playoffs, and 16 years later, James followed suit by single-handedly vanquishing the Pistons in a performance that certified his superstardom. Now, a numerically appropriate nine years later, the Cleveland Indians—as a unit—are trying to follow a similar sort of blueprint. If this team was ever going to get over the hump and back into legitimate title contention, they needed to solve Detroit. They had to fight back against a group that had bullied and embarrassed them in countless crucial moments over the past five years.
http://www.scout.com/cleveland-sports/story/1680924-while-you-were-cavs-ingBetween 2010—Josh Tomlin’s first year in Cleveland—and 2015, the Indians were a staggering 44-66 against Miguel Cabrera and Co. They were swept ELEVEN different times, and famously lost 10 consecutive games to the Tigers over one stretch in 2011. Of course, the Kitties had suffered their own abuse at Cleveland’s hands back in the “Era of Champions,” losing 72 of 103 meetings between the clubs from 1994 to 2001. Unlike those Tigers teams of the ‘90s, however, the Indians of recent years have been an otherwise better-than-average ballclub. They simply had no answers for their rivals to the west, and it routinely cost them come September.
Well, that narrative has certainly changed in dramatic fashion thus far in 2016. After sweeping Detroit for a third straight time, and second straight at Comerica Park, the Indians (44-30) have not only silenced their former bullies (38-38), they’ve left them seven games back in the rearview mirror.
Sure, Tribe hitters have never been particularly mesmerized by Justin Verlander (he was 18-20 with a 4.53 ERA vs. Cleveland coming into the game), but the veteran had also never allowed four home runs in one inning—to anyone—before Sunday afternoon.
Similarly, Miguel Cabrera has never found himself flustered by Wahoo hurlers as he has been this season. For his career, across 156 games, Miggy the Merciless has pounded Indians pitching to the tune of a .345 average, 40 HR, 130 RBI, and an OPS of 1.020. This year, he’s managed just five hits in 29 at-bats, none of them for extra bases. OPS: .445.
The Tigers are an old team, and they just might be a bad one, as getting outscored 60-20 across nine games would suggest. Forget about the J.D. Martinez injury forcing Mike Aviles into right field service. This is a club that has spent itself silly only to find they're stuck with the likes of a barely replacement-level Justin Upton for the next six years, a fading Verlander and Anibal Sanchez clinging to their reputations, and $5.5 million of actual American money invested in a rotation spot for Mike Pelfey.
Hey, you know who else is making $5.5 million this year? Our pal Josh Tomlin—a true original if there ever was one. The Little Cowboy, as everyone knows, throws strikes. And strikes, unfortunately, will sometimes be swatted into the stratosphere. Susceptibility to the longball has been a career-long albatross for Tomlin—one of the factors that kept him on the fringes of the rotation. He doesn’t just seem like a guy who gives up a ton of bombs, either. It’s an irrefutable, glaring truth. Among all the pitchers who’ve ever made at least 50 starts in Indians history, only two men posted a higher HR/9inn rate than Tomlin’s career mark of 1.50. Those fellas were Scott Elarton (1.63) and Ken Schrom (1.58). Only nine qualifying starters in Indians history even have a career rate above 1.2 HR per 9 innings.
In theory, a guy who surrenders this many moonshots, so consistently, can’t really be an efficient, reliable, winning pitcher at the Major League level. Right? Nobody is pining for the return of Ken Schrom. And yet… Tomlin has always been something wholly unique within the world of gopher ball pitchers. He’ll get victimized—as he did on Sunday by the former Indians Aviles and Victor Martinez (twice)—but he rarely gets burned.
A fairly remarkable 58 of the 101 homers Tomlin has coughed up in his career have been solo shots. Just 11 were three-run taters, and only one was a grand slam. This season, his HR rate is actually higher than any other point in his career (1.8 HR/9), but 12 out of the 18 dingers he’s allowed have been of the solo variety. He's allowed 39 extra base hits, but just 48 singles. In total, homeruns account for 24 of the 40 runs Tomlin’s allowed in 2016. The Little Cowboy has perfected the art of minimizing the devastation of the deep drive like few before him. And he does so essentially by choosing the nicks and cuts of solo homers over the messy complications of walks and rallies.
Two types of pitchers are most vulnerable to the home run: strike throwers and bad pitchers. Josh Tomlin is not a bad pitcher, which clearly makes him a strike thrower. Of course, there is a fine line in place here. Many strike throwers, like Anibal Sanchez, for example, wind up turning into bad pitchers rather quickly when their stuff declines or their precision falters. Tomlin, by contrast, has maintained a nearly unprecedented balance of efficiency and vulnerability.
Let’s take a look at that full list of all-time Indians gopher-ballers and toss in each pitcher's WHIP (walks and hits per inning) over the same periods.
Hmm, Tomlin sure does have an unusually low WHIP for a teeball pitcher. In fact, 1.171 sounds historically excellent.
That’s right. Josh Tomlin, improbably, is an all-time Indians leader in both HR rate and WHIP. Besides his teammate Danny Salazar, no one else on the list above even cracked 1.00 in HR/9 rate, and Tomlin is by his lonesome on the leading board when it comes to having a higher HR rate than WHIP (and it’s by a substantial margin). Generally, pitchers who specialize in limiting base runners don’t also go around giving up loads of homeruns. But Josh, bless him, is a different SOB.
Maybe you’re thinking this unusual disparity between HR/9 and WHIP is only unusual in Tribe history, and that there are probably quite a few Tomlin-esque pitchers across the whole history of baseball. Short answer: nope.
Using baseball-reference.com tools and going back over the whole of MLB across the past 100 years, how many pitchers with at least 50 starts (and at least 60% of their appearances coming as starters) had a career HR/9 rate above 1.3 and a WHIP below 1.3?
That’s the full list. Three guys. If you stretch it out to determine who’s managed a career HR/9 rate above 1.4 with a WHIP below 1.2, Tomlin stands alone. No one in history has a comparable dynamic over his longevity.
What about individual seasons? Josh has to have some fluky competition in that department, yeah? Well, only Tomlin, Dan Haren, and Ted Lilly have ever posted four separate seasons of a 1.3 or higher HR/9 rate and 1.3 or lower WHIP (that’s counting Tomlin’s current season, which has him well beyond both marks).
If Le Petit Cowboy stays on trend this season, he will repeat his feat from last season as the only starting pitcher in MLB history to post a HR/9 over 1.6 and a WHIP under 1.1. He could have some unexpected company from Max Scherzer, however, who is currently allowing 1.7 HR/9 to go with a shiny 0.997 WHIP.
To wrap up, rather than call back the number nine, I will mention the number six instead. Cleveland has scored at least six runs in six straight games. And when that happens, as I noted a few weeks ago, Tomlin (and Kluber and Salazar) literally never lose.
Objective: keep scoring six runs. Cleveland, as a championship city, remains unbeaten.