Breaking good: Curves working for Cleveland
Roberto Perez kept calling for it, so Josh Tomlin kept throwing it. The Indians starter fired curveball after curveball against the Blue Jays in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, and then he threw some more.
When the smoke cleared against the team from the Big Smoke, Tomlin had piled up a career-high 36 curves in another subduing of a great offense. Tomlin contained Boston’s bats in the AL Division Series and then quieted Toronto’s potent lineup one round later.
Toronto was thrown a curve, in a very literal sense.
“The game kind of dictates what you do,” Tomlin said. “It’s going to be tough for me to sit there and throw 87-88 [mph] to those guys all game long and be successful. They’re a good fastball-hitting team. They’re a good [mistake] hitting team. If you leave the ball over the middle of the plate, they’re going to do some damage and put up a crooked number in a hurry against you.
“So, it’s about executing pitches and it’s about trying to keep them off-balance as much as you can. I don’t have the stuff to just go out there and try to overpower anybody. So, some days it’ll be a cutter. Some days it’ll be a curveball. Some days, it’ll be a changeup. or, it might be a fastball, if I’m locating that day. My strategy or game plan is kind of dictated on how my stuff is playing that day.”
All of that said, this was part of a game plan. For all the talk over the past two days about Tomlin’s curve, and how it stifled the Blue Jays, nobody seemed to notice that ace Corey Kluber also set a career high in curveballs thrown (42) in Game 1 of the ALCS. One day later, Tomlin followed a similar pattern.
Why so many breaking balls? Well, Toronto — for all its power — ranked last in the Majors this season with a .161 batting average against curveballs. Blue Jays hitters Troy Tulowitzki (.208), Edwin Encarnacion (.195), Josh Donaldson (.195), Jose Bautista (.184) and Russell Martin (.100) all struggled against the pitch.
Here is how many curves Tomlin fired to each Blue Jays hitter:
Tomlin was also unpredictable, firing them in these counts:
Here is a look at where Tomlin put each of the 36 curves:
Toronto took 18 for balls, whiffed against six, took six for called strikes, fouled off five and put one in play. Helping matters was the fact that Tomlin was effective with his cutter and sinker. The Blue Jays went 3-for-13 against those pitches and pounded eight into the ground.
During the regular season, Tomlin averaged 15.4 percent curveballs across all his outings. That rate spiked to 42.4 percent against the Blue Jays. Toronto surely expected to see the pitch, considering Tomlin’s previous start against the Red Sox and how curve-happy Kluber was in Game 1 of the ALCS.
Tomlin vs. Red Sox in Game 3 of ALDS:
Tomlin vs. Blue Jays in Game 2 of ALCS:
Asked about Tomlin, Miller said: “He can pitch to a game plan better than anybody.”
Indians manager Terry Francona agreed, citing how much time Tomlin spent with pitching coach Mickey Callaway leading up to the start against the Blue Jays.
“The last couple days before we played, he was bending Mickey’s ear,” Francona said. “Even the night before he pitched. I saw him grabbing Mickey a couple times. When I’d see him, he was studying. He really, really paid attention.”
Might we expect to see a familiar approach from Trevor Bauer in Game 3 on Monday night? Well, Bauer’s curveball had a pitch value of 8.3 this season, making it MLB’s fifth-best curve this year, per Fangraphs. Kluber ranked first with a 21.8 rating. This year, Bauer made a lot of progress with the pitch, keeping it in the zone more, locking up batters, piling up strikeouts and posting a .132 opponents’ average with the curve.
It’s clearly a strength of Bauer’s, and remains a weakness for the Blue Jays.
“You don’t want to execute something that’s not to your strength,” Tomlin said. “There might be a game plan, but if it’s something you’re not comfortable doing, don’t do it. Both teams have the same amount of time. You both have that leeway to get prepared as much as you can.”
Tomlin watched Kluber’s start, studied the strengths and weaknesses of Toronto’s lineup, compared those to his own strengths, and wound up spinning more breaking balls than he ever had before in his pitching life.
Tomlin laughed when asked when he knew the curve was going to be that effective.
“When ‘Berto kept making me throw it,” Tomlin said. “He kept calling it and calling it. He did a good job. He had a good mix going all game long. The hitters will tell you if something is good or not.”