GOODYEAR, ARIZ.: Josh Tomlin was living a dream season when reality began to creep back into his infant career.
For most of last year and even back to 2010, when he made his major-league debut, Tomlin was the Indians’ little engine that could, the underdog that rose to the top, the overachiever who beat the odds.
Until Aug. 24, his last start of the season before being shut down with elbow pain, Tomlin pitched at least five innings in each of his 37 big-league outings, a modern major-league record. He missed making it 38 by one-third of an inning. Nevertheless, in 26 starts in 2011, he lasted at least six innings 23 times.
Not bad for a kid in his first full big-league season.
For the first four months of the schedule, Tomlin was 11-5 with a 4.01 ERA. Then his performance level began to slip. In August, his ERA ballooned to 5.28 with a 1-2 record. Maybe the twinges in his right elbow affected him.
He knows he was doing something wrong.
“I felt good the whole time,” he said. “But I felt like the hitters made adjustments to me and in the second half, I didn’t adjust as fast as I could. They started swinging early in the count. I recognized it, but I didn’t do what I could to be effectively wild quickly enough.”
Tomlin is that relatively rare pitcher who can throw all of his pitches to precise spots most of the time. Strike one was not a problem for him, nor was strike two or an 0-and-2 pitch that tailed off the outside corner — but not that far off the corner — a tease to the hitter.
After enough batters and scouts had seen Tomlin, they realized it was futile to allow him to get ahead in the count, when it was almost certain that his first pitch and maybe his second would wind up in the strike zone.
Hacking at the first pitch seemed the right plan against him, and batters began to swing early and with more accuracy.
“It started in the second half, after I’d faced everybody and there was a lot more video on me,” Tomlin said.
So what is Tomlin supposed to do? Throw pitches wide and high or in the dirt to keep hitters from swinging early? Obviously, the solution is not to fall into hitters’ counts.
The answer: Throw more quality strikes on the first pitch, maybe deliver a few pitches that just miss the plate, inducing hitters to swing and miss it or foul the ball off.
“Even if I have to start with a 1-and-0 count, I don’t feel uncomfortable,” Tomlin said.
Pretty much whatever it takes to dissuade hitters from thinking they are getting a hittable pitch on Tomlin’s first delivery.
Batters have a difficult time squaring up Tomlin’s pitches, even though he throws 88 mph fastballs. But there’s a logical explanation: Tomlin throws two kinds of fastballs — four seamer, two seamer — in addition to a curveball, change-up and cutter.
That’s one more pitch than most starters use. Moreover, Tomlin usually can command all of them.
“I feel like 95 percent of the time, I have control,” he said. “I have the confidence to throw any pitch in any count.”
Manager Manny Acta wants Tomlin to remain a consistent strike thrower, regardless of hitters’ strategies.
“It happens to every one of them [pitchers],” Acta said. “The league adjusts. I think he’ll be OK. I would rather he be a guy who attacks the strike zone and pitches ahead. Baseball is a game of failure; even the best hitters fail seven of 10 times.”
Told of Tomlin’s intent to throw fewer hittable strikes on the first pitch, Acta said, “He’s a perfectionist. If he wants to go for it, that’s good.”
Tomlin also was unhappy with the number of home runs he gave up (24), but as a fly-ball pitcher that might be an occupational hazard no matter what he does.
“I got a little home run happy last year,” he said. “I just gave up too many. I’d like to throw a few more ground balls.”
Acta was reluctant to allow Tomlin to face hitters a fourth time in a game. Tomlin, naturally, wants to change the manager’s perception.
“I would love to go deeper in games, but with the bullpen we have, why not use those guys?” he said. “But I have to do a better job the fourth time around the lineup.”
Because he doesn’t have a power arm, Tomlin has had to work harder convincing his bosses that he is the real deal, not uncommon for a 19th-round draft pick. But in his first two seasons he is 18-11 with a 4.34 ERA, and there are logical reasons for his success.
“What I like is when hitters are guessing. It’s a chess game, and I try to keep them guessing.”
With his wide array of weapons and pinpoint command of the strike zone, Tomlin has a chance to keep hitters guessing for years.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at https://ohio.com/tribematters. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.