You don't have to dig too deeply to figure out what Josh Tomlin's strategy is likely to be against the Cubs in Game 3 of the World Series tonight. The soft-tossing righty, who averages only 88.3 mph on his four-seam fastball, has made it pretty clear already this October.
Tomlin is going to throw curveballs. He's going to throw lots of them. He's going to do it because it's how he gets to the best version of himself, and he's going to do it because it may just be the best way to neutralize the excellent Cubs lineup.
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Since coming up with Cleveland in 2010, Tomlin has made 124 regular-season and postseason appearances of at least 10 pitches or more; for most of that time, he's relied on his four-seamer and cut fastball, sprinkling in the curve only about 10 to 15 percent of the time.
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If you look at those 124 starts and sort them by highest curveball percentage, look what jumps out immediately:
Tomlin's highest single-game curveball percentage from 2010-16
42.4 percent -- Oct. 15, 2016 (American League Championship Series Game 2)
33.8 percent -- Oct. 10, 2016 (AL Division Series Game 3)
29.9 percent -- July 23, 2016
25.3 percent -- July 20, 2011
25.0 percent -- Sept. 20, 2016
Anything stand out to you? It should. The only two times in Tomlin's career that he's thrown the curve more than 30 percent of the time came in his two 2016 postseason starts -- his two most recent starts -- against powerful Boston and Toronto lineups. He did that because the Blue Jays came in with a curveball problem, putting up the worst average (.161) in the Majors against curves, and because the Red Sox crushed fastballs, finishing No. 1 in batting average (.305) and second in slugging (.501) on them.
So Tomlin identified opposing strengths and weaknesses, and in those two curveball-heavy starts -- both Cleveland wins -- Tomlin managed to get through 10 2/3 innings while striking out 10 and allowing only three runs. Guess what: The Cubs may have a similar weakness.
Lowest team exit velocity against curveballs, 2016
84.3 mph -- Cubs
84.5 mph -- Reds
85.1 mph -- Yankees
86.2 mph -- Giants / Phillies
The Cubs have just a .201 average (the eighth lowest) on curves, and if you're now rightfully thinking that you only worry about exit velocity and average when contact is made, well, Chicago had a 32.1 percent contact rate when swinging at curves -- which is the lowest in the Majors.
So if Tomlin were to throw curves because the Cubs maybe don't handle curves well, that alone would be reason enough. But there's more to it than that, because this isn't the same curve Tomlin has been throwing for years. It's different. It's better. And as you could see on the top five curve-heavy games we showed above, it's not only been in the playoffs. Tomlin increased his curve usage late in the season.
Perhaps you can see why, if we show you his Statcast™ spin rate by month on the pitch:
That's a pretty noticeable change, one that seems to have taken place specifically before his Aug. 15 start against the Red Sox. More spin on a curveball is usually a good thing, as it leads to more movement (usually downward, though it depends on the particular spin's direction). For example, the Majors hit only .156 on curves above 3,000 rpm, as compared to .215 on curves below that mark. Since that Aug. 15 game, Tomlin has managed 8.5 inches of vertical movement, compared to 6.7 last season. Looking just at the postseason, he averaged nine inches against Boston and 10 against Toronto. Also since that game, his 2,855 rpm spin rate ranks in the top 5 percent of curveballs.
Perhaps most importantly, Tomlin is taking that extra movement and he's keeping it down. Look at where his curveballs ended up in the regular season as compared to what they've done in the postseason. They were down before, but now they're really down.
That's important, of course, because you want the curve down. It's extremely difficult to do anything with a pitch like that, and so far, the Cubs haven't done anything with the curves, following up regular-season struggles with more non-productive plate appearances in October, especially the World Series.
In Game 1, Cleveland pitchers Corey Kluber and Cody Allen threw 29 curves, allowing only a David Ross single while getting four batted-ball outs and 14 called or swinging strikes. In Game 2, Trevor Bauer and Jeff Manship threw 20 curves, generating seven called or swinging strikes, two infield outs and a Dexter Fowler single.
The curve may be Anthony Rizzo's weakest pitch (.169 average against, only three homers), to choose one example. It may be Tomlin's newest secret weapon, the one that helped him put up a 1.69 ERA in five September appearances and handle two good teams in the playoffs. It will absolutely be worth watching tonight.