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Tampa Bay vs Cleveland: Down with the Contenders

First Boston, now Cleveland?

Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Professional Baseball Team will decide their three-game series with the rubber match at 12:10 EST on Wednesday. The Rays have a chance to win back-to-back series against Boston and then Cleveland - the two teams most pundits had pegged as the top contenders in the American League before the season.

Things were dark there for a minute for Tampa Bay (back-to-back series losses against the struggling Toronto Blue Jays and Kansas City Royals), so a series win here in Cleveland would do wonders to remedy that tough stretch. Cleveland currently sits in second in the AL Central (20-18), while the Rays sit in fourth in the AL East (20-22).

The game will pit Alex Cobb against Josh Tomlin.

Starting Pitchers

Alex Cobb

There has been much written about Cobb both here at DRB as well as across baseball, but when we zoom out on his season, he’s doing pretty much what we’d expect: 3-3 with a 3.65 ERA and 4.26 FIP. He’s striking out a fewer batters than expected (5.66 K/9), but he’s also walking batters at a career-low rate (2.37), as he is likely pitching more to contact as he still tries to find his full repertoire on the mound.

The biggest change to Cobb’s repertoire has been the drop in his split-change rate, and the increased usage of his curveball. That change has only become more prominent in recent starts, as he threw just two split-changes in his most recent outing against the Red Sox (according to Brooks Baseball). It was the fourth straight game in which his split-change usage rate dropped, and it makes plenty of sense. So far in 2017, his split-change is being hit harder than any other pitch, allowing a .578 slugging percentage against, compared to .423 on the fastball/sinker and just .283 on the curveball. Eventually Cobb may want to go back to the well with more split-changes (it was his best pitch before Tommy John surgery after all), but for now he’s working with what he’s got, and he’s doing it well.

Josh Tomlin

Tomlin’s season looks a lot like Cobb’s, but taken to an extreme. He has walked just four batters over 38.1 innings this season. This near-league-leading avoidance of walks (only Ivan Nova has a lower BB/9 rate) has been a common theme in Tomlin’s career, as his BB/9 of 1.38 suggests a pitcher who would rather be beat by any means other than the free pass (no active starting pitcher has a lower walk rate since Tomlin’s debut in 2010).

The only problem is hitters have used those other means to beat him senseless in 2017. Tomlin’s ERA is 5.87, 11th-worst among qualified pitchers in 2017. However, like many of the Cleveland pitchers, his peripherals suggest he’s been a bit unlucky this season. His FIP (3.37) and xFIP (3.43) suggest an above-average pitcher and one who has been the unluckiest pitcher in baseball this season (2.50 ERA minus FIP leads baseball).

Tomlin hasn’t so much been the victim of the long ball (as his teammate Danny Salazar has been), but rather death by a thousand cuts, allowing an opponent BABIP of .344 (13th-highest in MLB) and not being able to strand those runners when they get on (58.2 percent left on base rate is second-lowest in baseball). This has been a bit of a trend in his career, as his 4.65 career ERA is higher than his FIP (4.49) and well higher than his xFIP (4.06).

Part of that has to do with his career wOBA of .303 with the bases empty, a figure that jumps to .367 with men on base and .377 when they are in scoring position. This is a crazy trend to have over the entirety of his career, and it means the Rays need to emphasize getting on base by any means possible if they want to defeat Tomlin this afternoon.

Starting Lineups

Today's Lineups

Cleveland Baseball Team Tampa Bay Rays
Cleveland Baseball Team Tampa Bay Rays
Jason Kipnis - 2B Corey Dickerson - LF
Francisco Lindor - SS Kevin Kiermaier - CF
Michael Brantley - LF Evan Logoria - 3B
Carlos Santana - 1B Logan Morrison - 1B
Edwin Encarnacion - DH Steven Souza - RF
Jose Ramirez - 3B Colby Rasmus - DH
Lonnie Chisenhall - RF Tim Beckham - SS
Bradley Zimmer - CF Daniel Robertson - 2B
Roberto Perez - C Jesus Sucre - C
Josh Tomlin - RHP Alex Cobb - RHP