Josh Tomlin might be in for a rough outing on Tuesday. I hope I’m wrong, but there is going to be a showdown between him and home plate umpire and it doesn’t bode well for Tomlin.
I shared the following tweet on Monday and got a lot of good questions requesting more of an explanation, so I figured I’d take the time to explain further:
Here is where Game 6 HP ump Joe West calls strikes compared to league avg (red is more, blue is less).
So basically Tomlin is screwed pic.twitter.com/klUZ65zXHh
— Ryan McCrystal (@TribeFanMcC) October 31, 2016
What the graphic means
These images shows where “Cowboy Joe” calls strikes compared to the league average. The red indicates where he calls more strikes than average, the blue indicates fewer strikes.
The good news is West is consistent—unlike Game 3 umpire John Hirschbeck—but his small zone could play a role in Game 6.
Why it hurts Tomlin
The issue with West’s zone is the lack of low strikes he gives out. He forced pitchers to throw up in the zone, which can be very dangerous for a pitcher like Tomlin that gives up a lot of bombs.
West is notorious for this frustrating strike zone, and pitchers are forced to adjust. So it probably isn’t a coincidence that more home runs have been hit with West behind the plate (225) than any other umpire over the past three seasons.
The image to the right shows where Tomlin has thrown his curve during the playoffs. Getting hitters to chase that curve out of the zone has been critical to his success—but Cubs hitters are undoubtedly aware of West’s reputation and will likely be even less likely to expand the zone.
Tomlin will have to hope the Cubs remain aggressive, as they were in Game 3. Of the pitches he threw out of the zone, the Cubs chased 43.7 percent of the time, their third highest rate of the entire season.
Presumably Tomlin will start the game with the same approach, but could be forced to adjust if they aren’t chasing and West isn’t giving him any calls.
Does it hurt Tomlin more than Arrieta?
A few astute fans responded to my tweet by pointing out the Arrieta also throws a high percentage of pitches in the zone and should be impacted too.
This is true. In fact, Arrieta throws a higher percentage of pitches low in the zone than Tomlin. He is primarily a groundball pitcher and consistently pounds the bottom of the zone.
However, there’s a big difference: Arrieta still has swing-and-miss stuff when he needs it.
Arrieta ranked 19th out of 74 qualifying starting pitchers in whiff rate—hitters whiff on 25.2 percent of the swings they take. Tomlin ranks 71st, at just 17 percent.
The gap widens even further when looking specifically at whiffs up in the zone. Tomlin’s curve generates a lot of his swings and misses, but probably won’t work at the same rate with West behind the plate. On pitches in the upper half—the ones most likely to matter in Game 6—Tomlin ranks 70th in whiff rate (11.4 percent), while Arrieta ranks 14th (23.9 percent).
So can Tomlin still win?
Of course. The umpire is just one factor in the game and Tomlin can definitely work around that. He is one of the most accurate pitchers in the league and if West is going to force him to paint the corners instead of live down and out of the zone, Tomlin has the ability to adjust.
But the point still stands, West’s zone will force Tomlin to adjust and is more likely to negatively impact him than Arrieta on the other side.
Fortunately we’ve got that Jacobs Field Magic on our side.