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Josh Tomlin Is Having the Worst Pitching Season in Major League History

Earlier this year, when my Clevelanders were facing the North Siders of Chicago, Josh Tomlin was facing off against noted walker Tyler Chatwood. I wondered aloud whether Tomlin would allow more homers, or Chatwood would allow more walks. Of course, this was mostly a joke. Walks are more common than homers, and so Chatwood, the worst (best?) walker in baseball, would walk more than Tomlin would allow home runs. Naturally, I made a comical bet with a Cubs fan friend of mine, and in the end, I scraped by: Chatwood would allow five walks, while Tomlin allowed a mere four dingers. How could it even have been that close?

Now I’m not here to trash Tomlin, or Josh as his family may call him. In fact, I feel for him. We humans have times of joy and times of suffering. And hey, Josh Tomlin is a very good pitcher, all things considered. He throws harder and more accurately than literally anyone I know personally. Even for an MLB pitcher, Tomlin has always been accurate. The problem is his opponents’ bats have been even more accurate.

There has been a trend going around in which people determine whether or not certain facts are “fun.” Some say a fact is fun if it limits the amount of qualifiers. Others believe it’s a fun fact if the reader cannot help but say wow in response. I think a notable omission is the consideration whom the fact is fun for. The following is fun for batters facing Josh Tomlin:

There have been 25,185 pitcher seasons since 1901 (min. 40IP).  Tomlin’s 2018 FIP is currently 8.26, which puts him in…25,185th place. Do you prefer league-adjusted stats? Tomlin’s FIP- is 199, 99% worse than average, and also the worst of all time. Maybe you think it’s unfair to use FIP, or even FIP- historically. After all, as you know, home runs are being hit at an all-time pace over the last 3+ years, so it’s not fair to look at Tomlin’s home run allowance on a historical level.

Let’s just look at this year. If you sort the FanGraphs leaderboards by HR/9, and set the minimum innings pitched to 40IP, you’ll find Tomlin right there at the top with 3.88. Without context, we can already surmise that this is an astronomical number. The average MLB pitcher is walking 3.28 batters per 9 innings–Tomlin is allowing .6 more homers per nine than the average pitcher walks per nine! But I think my favorite way of looking at this is the Jeff Sullivan special. Sitting in second in HR/9 is Wilmer Font with 2.45. The difference between Tomlin and Font is the same as the difference between Font and 128th worst Jon Lester. Josh Tomlin has been unthinkably bad at limiting home runs–he’s fourth in home runs allowed, and every single pitcher in the top ten has thrown double the amount of innings.

Even when he was a successful pitcher, Josh Tomlin had a home run problem. But he was able to make up for that by limiting walks with Kershawian skill, and miss just enough bats to scrape by some successful seasons. In 2018, his velocity has held steady, as have his contact and swing percentages. He’s walking a few more, and striking out a few less, but for whatever reason, when batters make contact this year, they aren’t missing. His barrel rate is 13%, and his Statcast xStats are even higher than his actual stats. Pitch values show that his secondary offerings have taken a major turn for the worse, but I don’t see why that’s the case. Maybe there are things we have yet to understand about baseball. More likely, maybe there are things I have yet to understand about baseball.

Tomlin is having the most terrible season of all of the terrible seasons. Maybe there’s some regression there, but even with positive movement, it’s certainly a mean to which one doesn’t hope to regress. The last piece of this regards his employers, the Baseball Club of Cleveland. The Indians are looking to make a run at the postseason this year, a run which many have considered to be all but a guarantee, considering the shambles of the AL Central. Perhaps Tomlin gets opportunities because it’s a foregone conclusion that Cleveland makes the playoffs safely, and the front office would rather not have a more instrumental piece of the Indians bullpen pitch in low-leverage situations, lest they become injured. But, one would think there is value in finding new arms, so that when the calendar reads October, Cleveland has more options out of the bullpen.

Even if this is not the case, it seems to this author that marching Tomlin out there makes manager Terry Francona look clueless, the front office careless, and Tomlin helpless. But most of all, the fans of the ball club deserve better.

Cleveland Is Incredibly Bad Under Pressure

I will lead this off by saying that I am both a fan of the Cleveland Indians and frustrated by the 2017 season. I generally try to write about things I have less of a stake in, but a weird stat caught my eye, and it merits discussion, bias be damned.

On the year, Cleveland has performed in a manner that has not reached their lofty expectations. They stand at 48-45, just a half game ahead of the inversely surprising Twins. You could point to a lot of reasons why this is true. Corey Kluber, excellent while on the field, has spent time on the DL. Young Francisco Lindor has caught the weak fly-out bug. After a slow start, Edwin Encarnacion has continued to put up his worst year since his breakout. Of the field, Jason Kipnis is still the same man, but you would not be able to tell by watching him play baseball this year. And I could continue with the players who have not quite met their external expectations that were placed upon them when the season started. Still, the Indians have the seventh-best run differential in baseball, and an even better BaseRuns differential, so the underlying stats still look good. How is this team only three games above .500?

Well, the Indians have a combined wRC+ of 102, a respectable total that is good for tenth in the MLB if you factor out pitchers. For a team expected to be above-average offensively coming into this season, that’s somewhere between disappointing and reasonable. It’s not as if they’re 25th in baseball, and randomness happens, so tenth is pretty good. In low-leverage situations, they are even better, putting up a Fonz-esque (cool) 111 wRC+. In medium leverage, they’ve been almost as good. In high-leverage situations, the Indians have a *twenty-eight* wRC+. For clarity’s sake, I’m going to call this HLwRC+.

If you read this website, I don’t need to explain how horrific that is, but I will anyway because it’s fun. In high-leverage situations, the Indians have basically batted like Kyle Freeland, a man who, before this year, likely had not held a baseball bat since high school. And it’s not particularly fluky either. FanGraphs’ batted-ball data shows that Cleveland has the lowest Hard% in these situations, and the fifth-highest Soft%. They’re definitely not an ideal gas, because they have not gotten hotter under pressure.

I really cannot overstate how ridiculously bad this is! Coming into the season, the lowest single-season HLwRC+  since 2002 was 50, by the 2003 Tigers. That team had zero(!) players worth 2+ wins, and had a 80 wRC+ in all situations. The lowest HLwRC+ by a team with a winning record was the 2006 Detroit Tigers, at 60. So much to say about this: that team won 95 games and went to the World Series! They must have been winning every game by scores like 10-3. Also, impressive turnaround by the Tigers. Their most valuable players were Carlos Guillen and Jeremy Bonderman. Wow.

This is a team-wide problem. Jose Ramirez, who’s quickly becoming one of those “so underrated, they’re properly rated” kind of players, has a wRC+ of 150, but an HLwRC+ of 34. Yan Gomes has some funny numbers: wRC+, 81, not great. HLwRC+: -81. In fact, only one member of the team with over 150 PA this year has a higher HLwRC+ than wRC+, and that is Roberto Perez, whose latter number is 37. Of course, all of these are small sample sizes.

At their current pace, Cleveland is on track to have about 218 more high-leverage at-bats. If from here on, their HLwRC+ equals 102, their current wRC+, they would still finish the season with an HLwRC+ of 60! Obviously, they’re still in first place, and have set themselves up to make the postseason for a second year in a row. But they’ve done so while being the anti-Freddie Mercury.

What in the World is Going on with James Shields?

Here at FanGraphs, it is gospel to say that a pitcher’s ERA is related to both skill and luck. The skill comes from being able to get batters to swing and miss or to induce weak contact, while limiting walks and home runs. The luck comes from how well the other players defend, and also the sequencing of events. That last element of luck, sequencing, merits a brief conversation.

There is little difference, from a pitcher’s skill point of view, between consecutive hits and hits in separate innings. That is to say, a pitcher’s skill is related to how many hard hit balls he gives up; a pitcher’s luck is related to when those hard hit balls occur. So, ERA is affected by the timing of hits, which we can measure easily using LOB%, which is the percentage of base runners that do not score at the end of an inning. It’s not this simple, but basically, a low LOB% rate means the pitcher has been unlucky, and a high LOB% rate means he has been lucky.

The average LOB% in 2015 so far is 72.4%. James Shields‘ LOB% is 87.8%. This is significant! Seven out of eight runners that reach base on him get stranded! His ERA should be anemic, right? Wrong. His ERA is a respectable 3.74, but this is unexpectedly high given what I have told you so far. Clearly, I haven’t told you everything.

There was concern during the offseason that James Shields’s fly ball tendencies would be problematic in the spacious Petco Park with a highly questionable outfield defensively. I guess his home ballpark isn’t spacious enough, because Shields is allowing a career high 2.28 home runs per nine innings, and 25.5% of the fly balls he surrenders leave the ballpark.

Meanwhile, Shields is also striking batters out at a significantly higher rate than his historical numbers indicate he should be. In fact, Shields is striking out batters at a greater rate than any other qualified starting pitcher (and most unqualified ones too!). Opposing hitters are also swinging and missing against Shields more frequently than any other pitcher, even more than highly sophisticated robot and Rust Cohle impersonator Corey Kluber!

When contact is made against Shields, though, it’s been hard contact. According to our new quality of contact statistics, only three starting pitchers have given up a higher percentage of hard contact than Shields. Batters rarely make contact, but paradoxically, when they do make contact, they’re hitting ropes.

This is confusing, and I don’t know why it’s happening, though I can speculate. Shields picked up a knuckle curve a few years ago, and he’s throwing it this year almost a quarter of the time. He’s a good pitcher, and it’s probably a good pitch, which explains the swinging and missing. However, it’s also a new pitch, and he’s probably also making a fair amount of mistakes, which hitters are taking advantage of.

That all made sense to me until a quick PitchF/X search told me that only one of the dingers off Shields were on curveballs. Back to Square 1; I have no idea why this is happening, and it will probably take someone smarter than me to figure it out, or it’s just a sample size issue.

In conclusion, let’s look back at the definition of LOB%. It measures the amount of batters that are left on base when an inning is over. Shields’s high K% probably helps inflate that LOB%. But, it’s also small sample size, and I’m not talking about early season small sample size (although that is probably also a factor). When a high percentage of hits given up are home runs, there are no runners to leave on base in the first place! James Shields is striking out and walking batters, and giving up home runs, all at a career high rate. And it’s kind of working.

Response to “A Nice Problem to Have”

Normally, one would leave a comment in response to an column, rather than writing a full blown piece, but that FanGraphs is devoid of response pieces may mean that FanGraphs is devoid of a possible method of furthering our understanding of baseball. Different opinions and viewpoints lead to different ideas, possibly allowing other readers to think about the game in different ways. So, without further ado…

Jose Ramirez has certainly had an adventurous 2014 professional season. After starting the year in Triple-A Columbus, the 21 year old Dominican had a brief and unsuccessful stint for Cleveland, and was promptly sent back down after the recovery of second baseman Jason Kipnis. Since Asdrubal Cabrera was traded, Ramirez has been an everyday player, and from that point onward, Ramirez has been batting at a 105 wRC+ with a .328 BAbip, a reasonable number for someone with his kind of speed and spray hitting ability. Additionally, while not sterling, his 5.8 BB% and 12.7 K% are acceptable numbers for a rookie shortstop, particularly when compared to the average shortstop, who measures at 6.8% and 18.1% respectively.

Of course, as promising as Ramirez has appeared, he has only accumulated 173 PAs since the Cabrera trade, and his true value offensively may be less than he has shown. As Sarris points out, his defense though is where Ramirez truly shines. His defensive ratings statistically check out, and though it takes years for these ratings to stabilize, there is some possibility that these numbers are accurate or they even undersell his value. Already this year, Ramirez has been worth 1.4 WAR, thanks to his 5.8 UZR (placing him fifth amongst shortstops on the 2014 season). And as Sarris also pointed out, Ramirez has passed the eye test with flying colors.

It appears that Cleveland’s future would be more successful with Ramirez than without him. The Indians also have Francisco Lindor waiting in Triple-A Columbus ready to take his throne as long-term shortstop. Since his defensive value is supposed to make up the majority of his overall value, his floor would seem to be higher than the average shortstop prospect. Even if his bat is just league average, his defense should elevate him to an All-Star level, if everything goes according to plan. Sarris’s metric of 69.3% bust rate amongst shortstops rated in the top 100 prospects includes players at all levels of the minors. Of course, players in the lower minors have more volatile futures as their high praise is based more upon projection than offensive or defensive output. Lindor has made it through the minors, and is ready to assume his throne.

Ramirez’s defensive value lies in his cavernous range and sure-handedness, traits that will suit him almost as well at second base. Kipnis’s skills at second base have been only so-so in his career, and unless he learns the secret of Jhonny Peralta, he is unlikely to improve as his career transpires. A switch to the outfield, or even first base (with Santana switching to a full-time DH role), would be acceptable, as Kipnis’s value lies in his offensive game. However, if anyone should be traded, it is Kipnis, who, like Starlin Castro in Chicago, may be usurped by better, younger players, and whose trade value lies in past success.