The best and easiest answer to the question above would be for Josh Tomlin to remember that he’s Josh Tomlin (look at splits on 4 days rest) and not Kyle Hendricks or Corey Kluber. If the Cubs get the same pitcher who handcuffed them for the better part of 5 innings Friday night in Chicago with the wind blowing out, well, we might be in for a long night. What it really comes down to in the end is that the Cubs, namely the bottom of the order, need to try not to suck.
Game 3 was great for any viewers without a vested interest in the outcome, but Cubs fans were ready to crawl out of their skin after watching batter after batter beat grounders right into the gloves of waiting Indians defenders. Tomlin doesn’t have wipeout stuff, as evidenced by a single strikeout. And despite failing to pound the zone, he only walked one of the 17 batters he faced. What’s more, Little Cowboy (real nickname) gave up only two hits and went blow for blow with Hendricks all night.
It’s been clear through the first five games of the series that the Indians have got a pretty solid book on the Cubs, attacking their hitters with breaking stuff and switching up the game plan from one start to another. Kluber adjusted his approach from the opener in Cleveland to he next appearance in Chicago and we saw a significant departure from Tomlin’s normal pitch mix when he took the mound at Wrigley.
Normally a four seam/cutter guy (that combo made up 69% of his repertoire in 2016), Tomlin adopted something akin to a rope-a-dope strategy last Friday night. Over the first 35 of his 58 total pitches, the former Red Raider threw 13 sinkers (37.1%) and 10 curves (28.6%). Throughout the regular season, those two offerings made up only a combined 23.3% of his mix (14.9% curves and 8.4% sinker). In contrast, Tomlin was going to the cutter only about half as often (20% vs. 38.2%) in that same sample.
From that point on, however, we saw a significant change in Tomlin’s tack. He went to the cutter on 13 (56.5%) of his next 23 pitches, while the sinker and curve were used only four times each (34.8% total). And that 87.8 mph fastball that he usually features nearly a third of the time? He threw it only four times in the game, not once in the latter of the two samples I’m referencing here. The Cubs kept waiting on the bread and butter and just ended up getting jammed and beating offspead and breaking pitches into the ground with frustrating results.
Admittedly, this is all a bit arbitrary since I chose the given numbers in order to accentuate the usage of the cutter in particular. Interestingly enough, though, the break between those first 35 pitches and the next 23 came early in Kris Bryant’s second AB. As the second batter in the order, it’s pretty clear that Tomlin was consciously switching things up to keep his opponents on their toes once the lineup turned over. By the time they had seen him once and had maybe started to expect the sinker and curve, he went back to the cutter. He was executing too, avoiding the middle of the plate and generally keeping the ball down.
We’ll surely see more of the same Tuesday night in Cleveland, particularly when the Cubs have the ability to reinsert Kyle Schwarber into the heart of the order. I’d expect to a repeat of the spin-heavy repertoire, given the inability of many of the young Cubs hitters to do anything with breaking stuff. And I’d also imagine Tomlin will look to use the cutter a little more in the early going. That means being patiently aggressive, forcing the starter to make his pitch and punishing any mistakes.
We didn’t see enough of that last week, specifically from the bottom of the order. While the Cubs’ 1-4 hitters saw 35 pitches in eight plate appearances, the crew batting 5-9 saw only 23 in nine trips to the plate. Hey, cool, it’s the same splits I used above when talking pitch mix (pure coincidence too). Javy Baez saw only six pitches, Willson Contreras five, and Addison Russell four against Tomlin. Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant each saw six and seven, respectively, in their second plate appearances.
I’m not saying you want these guys going up and taking all day, though I might argue that’s Javy’s best bet in a two-strike count at this point. Rather, the Cubs need to make Tomlin work and avoid doing him any favors. He’s not likely to beat them as much as he is to help them beat themselves. Don’t let the guy get comfortable, dictate the pace, and make him adjust to each hitter’s approach instead of the other way around. Sounds simple enough, huh? Now to get it done.
Tomlin usually takes a while to get going (5.90 1st-inning ERA) before he settles in for a while (sub-4.00 ERA from 2nd to 4th). Then the wheels really fall off (6.38 mark in the 5th), though he probably won’t last long enough to bring that latter number into play. Regardless of how good he’s been in the playoffs to this point, the Cubs can and should get to Tomlin early in Game 6. He won’t be missing many bats, so it’s really a matter of making sure the contact against him is solid.
Because Terry Francona isn’t going to hesitate to go to his bullpen, it’d be nice to have a few runs on the board before Andrew Miller steps to the mound. It may sound strange, but I believe getting out of Chicago will actually help Cubs hitters to settle into a better collective routine at the plate.
It’s not a given that we’ll get to experience a Game 7, but I’m feeling pretty good about the Cubs’ chances seeing Tomlin for the second time with Arrieta on the mound.
Pitch tracking via MLB Gameday, season stats via FanGraphs