As Spring Training was coming to a close and the season was quickly approaching in March, the Atlanta Braves were in a less than ideal situation. Injuries were beginning to become a concern in the both the rotation and bullpen. While the Braves had plenty of young and intriguing options to fill out their opening day rotation, they also had a few reasons (service time and role change) to keep their prospects in the minors. As a result, the Braves signed veteran starter Josh Tomlin to a minor league deal on March 21st, 2019. While Tomlin had mainly been a starter during his career in the majors, the Braves envisioned him in the long relief role for the 2019 season.
What were the expectations?
The Braves’ expectations for Tomlin were similar to the expectations any team would have for a long relief option. Tomlin was expected to eat innings in low-leverage situations, as well as be a reserve spot starter with the injuries that had occurred to A.J. Minter, Mike Foltynewicz, and Kevin Gausman. Tomlin’s role was not viewed as one that would likely expand as the season progressed, mainly because that would mean injuries and inconsistency were occurring at a larger degree with the Braves’ pitching staff than Atlanta expected. Most felt Tomlin would be one of the first options to be removed from the roster as more significant talents returned from injury.
However, Tomlin was also viewed as being a versatile option to utilize if it were necessary. That was the case in a few spots throughout the season, including producing two saves for the Braves. That versatility is one reason why Atlanta targeted Tomlin in Spring Training.
What went wrong in 2019?
The answer to this question focuses more on what went wrong for the Braves as a whole than Tomlin himself. As mentioned above, injuries and inconsistencies did make a significant impact on the Braves bullpen, especially early in the season. A.J. Minter and Aroyds Vizcaino had injury concerns immediately out of the gate. while Jesse Biddle, Jonny Venters, Shane Carle, and Chad Sobotka all experienced some sort of regression.
All of the shuffling among relievers did not really impact Tomlin’s role, as most of his appearances remained of the low-leverage variety. However, he was the only reliever along with Luke Jackson who remained in the Braves bullpen the entire season. When Tomlin did pitch, despite an overall decent amount of effectiveness, he proved why the Braves were astute in keeping him in a limited role. Tomlin allowed more hits than innings pitched (82 in 79 1⁄3 innings), 14 of which were home runs. He became the first reliever (90% or more of total innings pitched for season as reliever) in franchise history to allow 14 or more home runs while pitching fewer than 80 innings. There was a reason he was available as a free agent in late March, and the Braves did well to ensure those reasons did not make a significant impact during his appearances...
...except the few times when they did, like June 27. Tomlin was commonly used as a bridge to the rest of the relief corps when a starter didn’t last very long, and that worked out terribly after Bryse Wilson was lifted after 4 1⁄3 innings. Tomlin came in with a one-run lead and a man on second, and allowed the following sequence: groundout, triple, homer, fly out. In four batters, he turned a one-run lead into a two-run deficit. To make matters worse, he was left in the game for the sixth and allowed another run.
What Went Right in 2019?
Despite his limitations, Tomlin likely exceeded the expectations some had for him in Atlanta to start the 2019 season. For one, he stayed on the regular season roster and made the postseason roster for the Braves. For another, his 2019 season, his first in which he was primarily used as reliever, proved to be historic for both the Braves and the majors as a whole. In a season where the Atlanta bullpen was on pace at times for the worst walk rates in baseball history, Tomlin actually became the pitcher in MLB history to allow seven or fewer walks while pitching more than 75 relief innings in a season.
A reason for Tomlin’s performance was an increased, and highly effective, usage of his cutter. Tomlin threw a cutter 42.8 percent of the time in 2019, which was the seventh-highest rate among relievers with at least 70 relief innings pitched. That usage rate was the highest of Tomlin’s career, which proved to be an astute development for Tomlin and the Braves. Tomlin’s 9.2 wCT rate for his cutter was the fourth best in baseball among relievers. His ability to use the cutter effectively in any situation allowed Tomlin to remain effective throughout 2019. Perhaps the most memorable moment for Tomlin was closing out the division clinching win for the Braves back on September 21st, 2019.
In a season where the Braves had a lot of surprising outperformances and disappointing player-seasons, Tomlin was, well, pretty much Josh Tomlin. He was essentially a replacement-level reliever in 2019 (0.2 fWAR, 102 FIP-, 112 xFIP-), and that was essentially what the projection systems had him as coming into the season.
Probably Tomlin’s most impactful outing for Atlanta came on June 23, when Mike Soroka had to leave his start early after being hit on the hand by an Austin Voth pitch. Tomlin came on and threw four scoreless frames, allowing just a single and no walks, making the Braves’ slim lead stand up.
As soon as he left the game, the rest of the bullpen coughed up the lead, but the Braves would win thanks to a Johan Camargo two-run homer.
What to Expect in 2020?
Tomlin’s minor league deal in March was just for 2019. He now is a free agent for 2020. It seems logical that the Braves would be open to Tomlin returning in 2020, but that likely would only occur if Atlanta was unsuccessful in their pursuits for higher-upside options, both internally and externally.
While a future with the Braves may not be a guarantee, Tomlin has likely earned himself another year or two in the majors as teams become desperate for pitching once the 2020 season starts. In less than a year, Tomlin has improved his situation from perhaps being out of baseball entirely to realistically being an option for an Opening Day roster in 2020. Whatever the future may hold for Tomlin, he proved to be one of many small yet successful additions to the Braves roster that helped Atlanta become of the NL’s best teams in 2019.