- Photos by Tim Harrison
You'd be forgiven for missing the brief tenure of George Kontos in Cleveland, but in case you need a refresher: The reliever signed a minor league deal with the Indians on June 3, about a week after being released by the Pirates. He was called up to the majors and made his Tribe debut on June 20, joining a beleaguered and league-worst bullpen that has now seen 20 players make relief appearances so far this year, few of them good.
The 33-year-old right-hander, who was designated for assignment by the club on July 6 and then sent to Triple-A Columbus on July 8, hardly qualifies as a journeyman, but following his first season with the New York Yankees in 2011 he spent more than five years with the San Francisco Giants before Pittsburgh claimed him off waivers in 2017.
In the itinerant life of an average major league baseball player, four teams in seven years isn't a surprising ratio, especially for middle-of-the-pen arms shuffled around as teams deal with injuries or, as in the case of the Indians, flagging performances.
Over breakfast at Jack Flaps on a Tribe off day in June — on the 21st, to be exact, the day after Kontos made the first of what would be six appearances with the Indians — I told Josh Tomlin, himself a recent addition to Cleveland's 2018 bullpen from hell, that I didn't know they'd signed Kontos. I didn't know he even existed, in fact, and referred to him at first as Montos.
"Kontos," Tomlin politely corrected me. "He's actually good friends with Kip. They grew up together in Chicago. So having him down there to bust Kip's balls and make him feel welcome and little bit of home ... Hopefully he can fit right in and find a niche."
Honestly, I admitted, it was hard to keep track of the rotating cast of "Who's That?s" filling out the relief crew.
"Great teams go through that every now and then," Tomlin said. "There's going to be a mix that happens. When you have that movement, it's very important to have stable guys in the clubhouse that can welcome you and make you feel at home as quick as possible. I go up to them and I'll admit, I don't know what you're going through. I've been here forever. And they say, 'You've been here? When did you sign?' And I go '06, and they're like, "Holy shit.'"
Tomlin does not take this for granted. He reiterates over and over again how unthinkably lucky he's been to spend his entire career with the Indians' organization. And he knows, after what can only be accurately described as a historically bad 2018 season, that he's in serious and possibly imminent danger of that not being true anymore.
He thought it was actually going to happen in late May when Terry Francona met with him following a disastrous start to the season in which he logged a 7.84 ERA over 31 innings in six starts. At the meeting, Francona told Tomlin he would be moved out of the starting rotation and into the bullpen.
"I thought worse than that, and I wouldn't have blamed anyone," Tomlin said. "I wasn't doing my job. I had the highest home run rate in baseball, I wasn't even throwing enough innings to qualify for a win, I wasn't giving the team a chance to win. I was like, if you don't figure out something quick, your time with the Indians might be over."
His fear wasn't just about losing the only team he'd ever known, but losing the city he and his family — his wife Carlie, who he met after sending a buck he'd killed while hunting to a taxidermist, who then introduced the ballplayer to his daughter; and their two young kids — have come to call home.
"I'll be honest with you, the added pressure of thinking about what my family wants, how'd they'd react to me being let go, being released, whatever the case. It was like, you better get your shit together. If it was our choice or whatever ... I wasn't ready for that. We weren't ready for that yet. And I still don't feel that way. My life has changed in the past three years, with the kids. It's funny, we'll go to Georgia where her parents are, we'll go to Texas where we live in the offseason, and our kids will ask when we're going home. I say, 'What's home?' And they say Cleveland. That's the only thing they've ever known and more than likely the place we'll call home for good one day."
Those girls had recently helped Tomlin celebrate Father's Day, a special occasion in recent years for many reasons. His father, Jerry Tomlin, suffered an arteriovenous malformation on his spinal cord in August 2016, and though an emergency surgery saved his life, he remained paralyzed from the chest down afterward, and still is. Jerry traveled to Houston for the Tribe's road trip to Texas earlier this year to see his son and a specialist.
"He was getting scans and maybe they'll have a definitive plan for walking again or to explain why the severity happened," said Tomlin. "He's supposed to get answers. Regardless of whether he wants to hear them, he's getting them. I asked him, what if they say no way you'll walk again, and he said, 'I'm gonna wake up tomorrow and be the same person and continue to try.'"
The elder Tomlin had recently passed a driver's license examination for paralyzed individuals and was waiting to find out what custom adjustments needed to be made so that he can drive a vehicle again.
"I think he more or less wants it to get out of the house," Tomlin said, "to go park by the lake and be by himself. He has zero solo time. My mom's probably always asking, 'Are you okay, what are you doing?' and he wants to be able to say, 'Stop, let me go hang out for awhile.' He's ready, I can tell you that."
As baseball has been a lifelong bond between father and son, so too has it been for father and daughters. Naturally it played a role in Father's Day.
"It was awesome. The girls did a great job," Tomlin said. "Well, my wife did a great job too. They always like making something with their hands, so they made tutus for daddy and they gave those to me and they made me a baseball handprint thing. It's cool to see them embrace baseball. Daddy being a baseball player is the only thing they've ever known, and I want it to last as long as possible because that's what me and my dad did for fun, since I was three and half years old. I want that to be part of their life."
If you'll forgive that tide of heart-string pulls, which it definitely is and you definitely should, because Tomlin is seriously one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, it's all by way of saying that the 33-year-old is nearing the precipice of some possible major life changes.
A month after our conversation, the question of how long Josh Tomlin might be part of the Cleveland Indians remains as open as it was that day. After stringing together a span of solid appearances, he reverted course over three outings in July, serving up tape-measure dingers and late-inning runs before being placed on the 10-day disabled list shortly before the All Star break with what the team called a right hamstring strain.
No one needed to tell Tomlin or Tribe fans just how bad he'd been before the move, but numbers compiled by The Athletic's ace Indians beat reporter Zack Meisel put them in stark relief.
- His 6.98 ERA would be third worst among pitchers with at least 40 innings this year.
- Opposing hitters had a .657 slugging percentage against Tomlin. Only one hitter, Mookie Betts, has a higher slug rate (.674) this season.
- Tomlin has allowed 21 home runs this year in 49 innings of work. Only three pitchers have allowed more, and each of them has pitched more than 100 innings.
- He's given up a homer every 10 at bats.
- At 3.86 home runs allowed per nine innings, he'd set a Major League record for pitchers with at least 40 innings.
- His 21 home runs allowed, put end to end, could travel from Cleveland to his hometown of Tyler, Texas, and back.
Okay, that last one isn't true, but it feels true.
"I look at this stuff I'm trying to improve on [on video] and I'm watching all this negative stuff. It's just kind of a lot to think about and work through, so I trim the video down to just me on the mound so I don't see the results and keep reliving those in my head," Tomlin said. "And it has been [a lot of bad results]. A lot this year. With the rotation we had coming back, that was something I was really looking forward to competing with. And then it wasn't the start I wanted to get off to, and I asked why. I didn't understand it. Something with the consistency wasn't there, and I tried to find a consistency, and then it snowballed. I'm flying open, my backside's not staying down to drive off and create power and life, and then it came to a head and I'm like, 'Oh shit.'"
It's certainly not what he was expecting.
"What was so frustrating was, I spent a lot of time in Texas in the offseason to reset my body," he said. "I understand I'm getting older, and I tried to change things and try to put some longevity into the season. The guys back home, they did a good job with me. I've been doing this for 10 years, and here's the program that best suits my age, workload, the amount of time pitching in the playoffs, rest time, developing a system to get right for spring training. And when I got there ... You probably hear it all the time, 'I'm in the best shape of my life' — I don't believe that stuff. But I really felt the best I had in my life. So to have those troubles earlier on made me question a lot of things. My whole body felt great toward home plate, but my arm felt tired. It just happened all of a sudden."
Though 2018 represents the single worst season of Tomlin's decade-long career, it's not the first time the soft-tossing righty has struggled. 2012 wasn't particularly great for the Tribe, Tomlin or the rotation, which at that time included Derek Lowe, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez. He missed all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery and had an uneven 2014 before the starting rotation as we know it came into focus in the run to the 2016 World Series, of which Tomlin was a vital cog. Still, ups seem to be followed by downs, and last year was no exception.
"[Former pitching coach] Mickey [Callaway] kept telling me last year, 'Your batting average per balls in play is like .380,'" Tomlin said. "I'm like, 'Well shit, how is it like that?' He said bad luck. Well some of it is, some of it is they're hitting the fucking shit out of the ball and it's high right now because the exit velocity is 110-plus. You can't tell me 18 balls are being hit 500 feet and tell me it's bad luck. Bullshit."
If you'll forgive the brief retrospective of the relative highs and lows, and the recent low lows, of Josh Tomlin — which this is and you should, because for whatever is going on now he was an integral part of the last few magical seasons — it's all by way of saying that Tomlin's professional career is astounding and worthy of appreciation.
Case in point: He's the longest tenured current member of the Cleveland Indians organization, drafted and signed, as he said earlier, in 2006.
If you made a list of every team's longest tenured current player, from first contract until today, only 11 are ahead of Tomlin: Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox), Brett Gardner (Yankees), Alex Gordon (Royals), Joe Mauer (Twins), Felix Hernandez (Mariners), David Wright (Mets), Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Joey Votto (Reds), Ryan Braun (Brewers), Yadier Molina (Cardinals), and Kenley Jansen (Dodgers).
That's a list littered with MVPs, All Stars, Gold Glovers, Cy Young Award winners, and probable and definite future Hall of Famers.
And then there's Josh Tomlin.
"I try to think about people that have done this, and it's not too many," Tomlin said, "and not too many on the way. I mean Mike Trout ..."
Tomlin stopped and leaned toward the tape recorder.
"I'm not comparing myself to Mike Trout," he said. "But not many teams have guys that have been locked up for awhile. We have Lindor and Jose that have the potential to do that, if you can sign them, that are capable of that kind of longevity."
No, Josh Tomlin isn't Mike Trout, or Felix Hernandez or, for that matter, Carlos Carrasco or Corey Kluber. But there's a reason the Indians have held onto him as long as they have, and a reason why Francona trusts him, to a fault, some fans would say.
The two are, as you might imagine, incredibly close. They play an insane amount of cribbage against one another, and were playing the card game about 15 minutes after Tito told Tomlin about the bullpen move, a testament to how Tomlin and Francona carry themselves.
"I hope it was an easy conversation for him," Tomlin said. "I hope he didn't feel like he was stepping on my toes. We have a good relationship. It's built off a lot of competing, but also we bullshit about everything. It's not just about baseball, it's things with his dad and talking crap to him and just getting him through his day."
You can chalk that up to Tomlin being a good Clubhouse Guy, a Good Teammate, and a Nice Fella, but it also stems from how professionally and seriously Tomlin takes his job. It's what has gotten him this far and on that list with baseball's best, and it's why, when the organization brought Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie to Cleveland last year for a few days, they had the pair of rising prospects shadow not just Corey Kluber but also Tomlin.
"I wish I had that opportunity when I was their age," he said. "I was never a prospect. I considered myself a suspect. They came in and they didn't take it for granted. They weren't jackassing around. They were watching us and lifting and running. They were a little starstruck by Kluber, and I told them you can be starstruck, so am I.
"It's been frustrating in the past, to watch people who have unbelievable stuff throw a bullpen and just go through the motions," he said. "I watched that and said, 'Holy shit, I'd be out of the game seven years ago if I did that.' Some people are gifted, but that stuff comes to a head eventually with lack of work, lack of effort, lack of caring. And you can tell those people, because in one or three years they weed themselves out, or get hurt. That's a huge thing me and Kluber have preached to Bauer and Clev[inger] and Carrasco and everybody. We're all here for a reason, we're all good; what's going to make us exceptional depends on work. So we preach from the get-go: Take your bullpen days as seriously as you take day five. And it shows: These guys have been pretty good. Tito has pretty much ingrained it in our brains. If you want to win, you have to value the little things."
Tomlin pointed out there's not many guys left from 2010, 2011 and 2012, when the Indians were downright terrible. The ones who are, the ones who have helped drive the turnaround from "being really shitty to being really freaking good," share that work ethic. It's why he wasn't at all surprised to see the organization bet on Michael Brantley in the offseason, and why the front office has continued to bet on Tomlin.
"I was talking to Chris [Antonetti] in spring training and we talked about Brantley's option a bit," he said. "Sure it's a risky move, but at some point you have to bet on the human being. We talked about having unfinished business with the goal in mind of winning the World Series. A lot of this is relationships that get built over years. They bet on the fact that when he's on the field he's productive. When he's healthy he's just as good as anyone, but people don't talk about that. I know his mindset, his drive, and you have to bet on that guy, because if I sign someone,I don't know whether I'm getting that leadership of, 'If I have to walk through hell with gasoline on my underpants to get to the World Series, that's what I'm going to do.'
"They know we have that leadership in the clubhouse now and that it took a while to get that. And it means everything," Tomlin said. "Absolutely everything. If you don't have chemistry or camaraderie, you could have the best team in the world and it's not going to amount to shit if everyone's out to get theirs. I've played on teams like that before with guys who only gave a flying shit about how many runs they gave up or what their batting average is. It doesn't make any sense to me."
I told Tomlin that the day before, during the game against the White Sox that the Tribe ended up winning 12-0 with Tomlin throwing a scoreless ninth, a friend had texted when it was 8-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning that he didn't think the lead was "bullpen-proof yet."
"That sucks. That sucks," Tomlin said. "Only because we know that's not us. When I went to the bullpen, it was I'm going down there because I was shitty as a starter, and I'm going down there because I need to be better in some form on the mound, and whatever I can do outside the lines to find a niche and find my way, it's going to be better for us. If I would have given up 10 runs and we won 11-10, that's what matters. I would have been pissed off, don't get me wrong, because that's not good and because the other eight guys would have been on their feet for 45 minutes; but the fact of the matter is, if we win, that's all that matters. You've got 25 guys who that's all they give a shit about, one run better today. We also have the best relief pitcher in baseball on the DL right now. That's the reality of it."
Tomlin was of course referring to Andrew Miller, who he's since joined on the DL. And though Tribe fans eagerly await the return of the left-hander, the same can't be said of Tomlin, texts and tweets affirm. Despite some minor course corrections and temporary stabilization, the bullpen's long-term prognosis as currently constructed isn't great and the front office will undoubtedly make moves to bring in new arms. There may or may not be a spot for Tomlin after the shuffling. His leash has been long and it could hold, and Tomlin's bounced back from struggles before, and could certainly do it again. It's hard not to root for that outcome.
Breakfast isn't the ideal setting for heavy discussions and reckoning over the tail-end of a career, but over coffee, scrambled eggs, sausage patties and wheat toast (if you were curious), Tomlin took stock of what his Cleveland journey has meant so far, and why he's in no rush to see it end. Yes, he wants to be part of the reason they get back to the World Series — "Our main mission is playing in November and winning the whole damn thing, not the second place trophy," he said — but also everything that's come with the ride in the past five or six years.
"It's the little things," he said. "Guys that you're really good friends with, life friends, not just baseball friends. We love our house in Rocky River. Me and Kipnis and Kluber all live out there. And me and Brantley have become ... I'm gonna kick myself because he's going to see this, but he's one of my better life friends I've ever had. Not just baseball. When we're done playing, there's going to be a situation where we move by each other. You develop the kinds of friendships that don't come along very often.
"You can tell I don't have 10 years left, but this isn't my last year," Tomlin said. "There's going to be a time when I have to make that decision, and I have two little girls who are helping me make that decision. I'd love to play forever, and when I'm done, I'd love to coach it forever. This has been my life since I was 3 years old. My girls love it, my wife loves it. They eat up baseball. Today when I left I told my daughter I had to go talk to a guy about baseball. She said, 'Daddy, can I come to the baseball field?'"