If 2021 was the end of the line for Josh Tomlin, then at least he went out with his team on top
Josh Tomlin spent the last three seasons with the Atlanta Braves as a Swiss army knife of a reliever who mostly worked in a mop-up role. He was a solid clubhouse presence and was a leader in the bullpen but at age 37, his effectiveness essentially ran out in 2021.
The Braves originally acquired Tomlin at the end of Spring Training in 2019, after he had been released by the Milwaukee Brewers. He appeared in 51 games that season while posting a 3.74 ERA and a 4.49 FIP (0.2 fWAR) in 79 1/3 innings, getting somewhat fortunate with his homer rate as his xFIP approached 5.00. Tomlin re-entered free agency at the end of that season and elected to return to Atlanta on a minor league deal. He made the 2020 Opening Day roster and filled in across a variety of roles as the Braves tried to piece together their rotation. He ended up appearing in 17 games and made five starts while posting a 4.76 ERA and a 4.02 FIP in 39 2/3 innings (0.4 fWAR). He was dominant in his relief appearances that year (2.95 ERA, 2.65 FIP), and was hammered in a few starts, which dragged his line down.
Tomlin again became a free agent after the 2020 season, but this time returned to Atlanta on a major league deal that was worth $1 million. The deal also included a $1.25 million club option for 2022.
The expectations for Tomlin were more of the same. The Braves were looking for him to provide leadership in a bullpen that had lost several arms from the previous year while also being ready to pitch in whatever situation presented itself. Steamer had him as replacement level for the 2021 season, while ZiPS had him getting positive fractional WAR while pitching a bunch of innings.
2021 Season Results
Tomlin didn’t quite see the results that he had in previous seasons with Atlanta. He allowed seven earned runs in 11 2⁄3 innings in March and April. He then gave up nine runs in 12 2⁄3 innings in May. He allowed just one run in June but things came apart after that as he finished the season allowing 19 earned runs over his last 15 2⁄3 innings. The peripherals were generally not quite that bad, but they also weren’t any good. In the darkly funny world of small samples, Tomlin’s calendar month with the lowest xFIP of 2021 was August, which was the month in which he had the highest FIP and ERA — accrued across three outings, including one in which he allowed three homers with a 5/0 K/BB ratio.
The Braves placed Tomlin on the injured list on August 31 with a strained neck; he finished the season on the Injured List and didn’t return for the playoffs. He was spotted throwing simulated games in September, but never seemed like a real candidate to return to the active roster. All in all, he finished with -0.1 fWAR, the second sub-replacement performance of his career by fWAR.
What went right? / What went wrong?
Tomlin’s overall numbers weren’t good in 2021 but it is important to look at the role he was in. He would often enter games when the outcome had already been decided and when the Braves were hoping to limit the usage of the bullpen. He ended up logging 49 1⁄3 innings on the season. Still, his already shaky effectiveness got worse down the stretch and the Braves simply couldn’t afford to keep him on the active roster. They opted to keep him around instead of releasing him, likely for the leadership skills that he showed throughout his tenure with the team.
On some level, what went wrong for Tomlin was that his results were pretty terrible despite some good signs. He posted his highest chase rate since 2013, and his highest whiff rate ever. His pitches hit their spots pretty well. His pitches didn’t seem to regress much, except for maybe his four-seam fastball. But everything got hit hard, even when he was hitting his spots, as hitters had no trouble elevating even the cutters and curves he threw on the lower edge of the zone. Whatever benefit Tomlin used to get from painting the corners evaporated — league-average xwOBA is around .315 in general, and in the “shadow” portion of the zone, it’s around .270 — Tomlin’s mark in this portion was .285 in 2019, .296 in 2020, and a problematic .328 in 2021, despite a rate of pitching to this zone better than league average. Sometimes, you need a bit more than command.
Road to the Title
Tomlin actually posted positive WPA on the year, which is kind of impressive both because of his blah season, and because he almost never saw high leverage: he entered only two games in a high leverage situation, and faced just four batters in literal high leverage across three outings — and succeeded each time. His cWPA on the year was negative, but marginally so.
In that regard, the highlight of his season was a stretch of back-to-back outings on April 6 and 7. In the first game, he relieved Tyler Matzek in the seventh — Matzek had walked two in a row with two out to load the bases as the Braves clung to a one-run lead. Tomlin came on against Trea Turner, fell behind 2-0, pumped in a strike, and then got a flyout. (The Braves lost the game later, anyway, as Juan Soto walked off versus Will Smith.)
The next game was a very different one for Tomlin — he came on in the third after Max Fried was blasted for six runs in two frames, and threw two near-perfect innings (just a walk to Juan Soto) to preserve a one-run lead in a seven-inning game. That was actually Atlanta’s first win of the season, and Tomlin led the pitching ledger in WPA. Unfortunately, it was mostly downhill from there.
Outlook for 2022
As expected, the Braves declined the $1.25 million option on Tomlin’s contract on November 6. choosing instead to pay the $250K buyout. Tomlin is again a free agent, but at 37-years old, it looks like he may have reached the finish line of a 12-year career. Someone may want him for the same role he’s served recently, but it’s unclear how long he can keep it up if even his stuff on the edges is being hit well.