We live in an era where pitching velocity seems like it will rise to frightening new hights essentially unabated. Aroldis Chapman is still a mutant superhuman, but he’s no longer the most extreme outlier when it comes to throwing.
If you're a pitcher and you can't throw through a barn door, you need to be able to do something magical, to beguile and trick batters. In fact, among starters last season, there were 14 pitchers whose four-seam fastball averaged below 90 mph. This list included three former Cy Young Award winners (old CC Sabathia, RA Dickey and injured Dallas Keuchel), a folk hero (Bartolo Colon), and two men who started World Series games.
Those two men, Josh Tomlin and Kyle Hendricks, have the velo and the World Series start in common and little else. One is a back of the rotation starter, one was third in Cy Young Voting last year. But they both intrigue me because of how they are successful in an era that should have passed them by. After watching both pretty regularly I had to wonder, why is Kyle Hendricks not Josh Tomlin?
Before we find those differences, it seems important to find what is so similar about these guys.
They do throw a similar mix of pitches, pretty much a requirement of someone who doesn't have the raw stuff to simply overpower hitters. They both have learned to rely less and less on their four-seam fastball, since movement is their friend. Here's their pitch usage from 2015 to now:
Josh Tomlin pitch usage
Kyle Hendricks pitch usage
As you see, though they use their arsenal in different ways. Tomlin has been working to phase out his fastball, while Hendricks likes to lean on the sinker and has utterly stopped with the cutter. Tomlin evidently believes he needs that tight movement of the cutter to get the ball off the bat's sweet spot. He also utilizes a simply excellent curve to great effect, and has ramped-up its usage precipitously this season.
There must be a reason that Hendricks feels comfortable throwing a fastball in the 80’s in Wrigley Field in 2017 though, and Tomlin has backed off from it despite playing in a much more pitcher friendly division. The key to it all is simply what he has to play with alongside the fastball. Specifically, his changeup. He gets excellent break on the change, allowing him to fool hitters. Tomlin does not have this seperation, as these two graphs from TexasLeaguers.com shows:
As these charts demonstrate, Hendricks gets considerable vertical separation on his change compared to the fastball and sinker, which means good, solid contact is much more difficult to produce when he pairs if off those two pitches. His sinker also breaks comfortably off his fastball. Tomlin’s change is basically on the same vertical plane as his cutter and barely drops off his sinker or fastball. Those latter two pitches are nearly interchangeable on the vertical plane too, which makes it even harder for him. This year Tomlin is averaging 86.6 mph on his four-seam (when he throws it) and 87.8 mph on his sinker. Meanwhile, so-called change of pace averages 84.1 mph. It’s a slight difference, but not as good as Hendricks, who throws an 86 mph fastball. 85.4 mph sinker and a 78.9 change. That’s enough to throw off any hitter, get grounders and strikeouts. By the way, that fastball velo is three ticks below his 2016 average, which could have something to do with his struggle.
Oh, and toward the bottom of the Tomlin pitch map, that line bouncing off the plate, that’s the curve obviously. Makes sense why he’s throwing it so much. It’s the only pitch he has, that really gets out of the tunnel everything else travels in.
That having a solid change is a big difference maker for a pitcher, and Hendricks throws it nearly as much as his fastball. Combined with his being able to operate on three different planes depending on the fastball, sinker or change, and hitters are in a very bad way. Hendricks is able to lean on one pitch more than others, while Tomlin needs to just throw the kitchen sink at hitters all the time. Whether because of that movement Hendricks has or just because he throws a smidge harder, he can rely on that sinker and four-seam early in counts to get ahead. Here’s how he’s used his pitches based on count the last two years:
However it’s explained, movement or simply three or four more miles per hour, being able to feature one pitch like Hendricks can helps him last longer in games and get ahead early and get people out. What I mean is, Tomlin can’t start mixing in curves or cutters or sinkers the second time through the order and keep hitters off-balance. He just has to show everything early. Hitters see what he has, and are in a sense ready for it. Add to that the fact he doesn’t get a ton of movement on most of his pitches and they’re all in the same five or six mile per hour window save the curve, he is stuck giving up the Tomlin Tax of a bases empty homer. Hendricks though, he throws a much heavier sinker and a diving change. He can flash these suddenly and also dot a corner with a straighter four-seam. Hitters are forced to adjust more, hit on different planes and not have as predictable a time in terms of where the ball will be. If Hendricks masters a Tomlinian curve, he could be truly vicious.
There’s the walk thing too, where Tomlin hasn’t walked more than 3.2 percent of hitters in any of the last three years compared to Hendricks never below 5.8 percent. Walks aren’t good, but Tomlin takes this to a wacky degree bordering on a complex. he does pitch to contact, and his finding a sinker the last few years has been vital in getting his grounder rate above 40 percent. That’s not great, especially considering Hendricks’ hovering around 50 percent since 2015, but it’s better than what Tomlin had been doing. Plus the Indians found an infield defense somewhere in the middle of 2015. Which was nice.
Tomlin works to not give up free passes though, and at times that seems to work to his detriment. Not having that put away pitch but the mentality of Roger Clemens has gotten him into trouble. Which brings us back to the curve, and the idea of a late career Renaissance. Hendicks having more movement on his pitches means he can throw out of the zone more and will end up walking more, but he’ll also get more K’s. Just in general, contact is harder facing Hendricks, who packs an 82.2 percent contact rate this year and 76.6 a year ago. Tomlin is at 85 this season, 84.7 a year ago. He does get people to swing at pitches outside of the zone more often (35 percent last year versus Hendricks’ 31.2), which is... odd. Maybe pounding the zone works in his favor in that respect. Not that throwing more strikes would be good for either of them - they still rarely crack 90.
Originally I thought there’d be a bigger impact from Hendricks playing in the NL versus the AL, but with interleague play and simply the general leap in pitching skill, average ERA is about the same between the two. Hendricks did get to play in front of one of the best defenses ever last year, leading to a nearly a full run difference between his ERA and DRA- 2.13 against 3.00. Tomlin had something like that in 2015, a 3.02 ERA versus a 4.62 DRA, but that’s about as stark as he’s ever been. He usually has worked his way back to DRA-land, and one can’t help but think the terrible defenses he’s pitched in front of in Cleveland for two thirds of his career have given him what he deserves. Defense matters and Hendricks has been a major beneficiary of who he plays in front off. Not to take anything away from him of course, he’s still good, just in a way that’s considered old school, passe even.
I don’t think that Hendricks has some strange, preternatural talent for forcing weak contact, I just think he has a perfect blend of pitches for the velocity he’s capable of. Tomlin does not, many of his pitches blend into each other. The recent emergence of his curveball gives him a new wrinkle, and played large in that 1-run complete game he threw in Kansas City a couple games back. If you swapped them though, the Cubs would be on the short end of that deal for about five different reasons besides facial hair. He seems like an unconventionally good pitcher, but he just doesn’t throw hard. If his velocities were league average, he’d be unhittable. With him and Tomlin though, and guys like Marcus Stroman, we still get huge sluggers baffled by varying qualities of garbage. Hendricks is the greatest of the modern garbagemen, and that is something to be appreciated. Without the garbageman, baseball would lose a whole dimension. Let’s pray that day never comes.
Merritt Rohlfing writes for Beyond the Box Score, Let’s Go Tribe and some other websites, and hosts the magnificant Mostly Baseball podcast. Follow him on Twitter @merrittrohlfing.