At a glance, Josh Tomlin’s success is a mystery. Pitching for a team where everyone and their brother pairs a plus fastball with a hard slider, Tomlin’s stuff is comparatively pedestrian. His average heater barely scrapes the upper-80s and “loopy” is the best descriptor for his breaking ball. He had the fifth-lowest strikeout rate in the American League this year, and only James Shields and Jered Weaver allowed more home runs.

Up close, Tomlin is a marvel, a soft-tossing but precise strike thrower who survives by simply knowing how to pitch. Effortlessly, he repeats a simple and controllable delivery, a motion that allows him to pepper the strike zone even as he aims for its very fringes. He’ll nip corners with his cutter, run a two-seam fastball back over the edge of the plate, mix in a curve to disrupt a batter’s timing, and bust hitters with a deceptively fast fading changeup. Levitate a bowling bowl over the heart of the plate, and on Tomlin’s day, he won’t nick it.

Mike Daly, then an area scout for Cleveland, noticed Tomlin’s strengths when he pitched at Texas Tech. An early-season arm injury scuttled half of Tomlin’s junior season and limited his exposure to other scouts. But Daly caught him just before and after the injury, and liked his control and deep arsenal: “He commanded the ball well, had a real good feel for the breaking ball, could throw his change for a strike. Good feel, mixed his pitches effectively.”

But Daly also liked more than just what came out of Tomlin’s hand. “He was a good athlete, very smart about seeing what hitters are trying to do, seeing hitter’s swings. He’s a competitive guy, and he has nerves of steel.” It’s a checklist seemingly reserved for the gritty, under-sized ballplayer without big tools, and it’s easy to gloss over the list or dismiss it out of hand. But Daly wasn’t robotically rattling off cliches, or even describing what made Tomlin in particular unique. A deeper evaluation of pitchers like Tomlin — soft-tossers without significant size — reveals that athleticism, intelligence, a go-to offspeed pitch, and a heaping helping of confidence are make-or-break characteristics for any pitcher without an average fastball.

In today’s game, teams around the league are emphasizing like never before. The average fastball in 2016 was thrown at 92.6 mph, the fastest mark on record. It’s more than a mile per hour faster than the average heater in 2010 and nearly two ticks above the average in 2008. The velocity of every other pitch has risen alongside, and teams aren’t just accidentally stumbling onto pitchers who happen to throw hard. Cleveland is one of many organizations that strives to turn their personnel into flamethrowers and Ruben Niebla, their Minor League Pitching Coordinator, has a succinct explanation for why: “Subjective and objective data proves that velocity gives you more room for mistakes in command and help with missing bats.”

Teams around the league are reacting to the velocity surge throughout the sport. Some clubs have changed their scouting scale, raising the threshold of what constitutes an average fastball. They’re also employing fewer pitchers with hair metal velocity. As velocity has climbed in recent years, the number of starting pitchers with an average fastball under 90 mph dropped:


Number of starters with FB velocity < 90 mph















Data courtesy of Fangraphs. Starters had to throw 150 IP to qualify; knuckle-ballers were omitted.

The diminishing number of true soft-tossers has had a Darwinian effect on the sub-90 mph pitchers left in the game. As you’d expect, this group of pitchers has stellar command across the board, and all of them have at least one secondary that they can rely on as an out-pitch. You may not, however, have immediately connected “soft-tosser” with “athletic” but this element shows up in a number of ways. For one, the 13 pitchers listed above are extremely stingy with the stolen base: 10 of the 13 either allowed fewer than ten steals all year or posted a CS% better than league average. Base-stealers had a particular tough time against Bartolo Colon (53 percent), Dallas Keuchel (50 percent), and Zach Davies (47 percent).

They also tend to be pretty good defensively. From Greg Maddux to Mark Buehrle to Dallas Keuchel, the best fielding pitchers in the league tend not to be the high-effort, high velocity hurlers but rather the smaller, athletic pitchers with clean deliveries. Since 2002, only eight of the 28 total Gold Glove recipients threw harder than 90 mph on average, and while you should take any awards-voting with a baseball-sized grain of salt, there’s no lack of visual evidence to support the idea that soft-tossers field their position quite well.

Athleticism also manifests itself in a pitcher’s delivery, and it’s a crucial part of a soft-tossing amateur’s profile. Take Davies, who might have been the prospect among the sub-90 mph group. At 6-feet and 155 pounds, Davies doesn’t have the size of a typical starter, but the right-hander nonetheless impressed Baltimore’s Southwest Area Scout John Gillette with how well he controlled and repeated his motion: “You always have concerns about guys who are a bit on the smaller side, but with Zach’s delivery there was absolutely no stress. If there was more effort in his delivery, I would have had concerns.”

Davies’s delivery checked all the boxes Gillette looks for in a pitcher who projects as a command arm: he maintains arm speed on all of his pitches, he has a clean landing, fluid arm action, and a very still head as he strides. Like Tomlin, he’s also a fearless pitcher who will throw each of his pitches in any count. He was a good student, and even back in high school, he had a reputation as a pitcher who studied opponent's swings and a guy who could make adjustments in games. Besides velocity, he had the total package, and it netted him a $575,000 bonus out of high school, an unusually large sum for a pitcher with a below-average fastball and limited physical projection.

This isn’t to overlook a pitcher’s raw stuff. Gillette gushed about Davies’ changeup — “it was an 80 even back in high school” — and with soft-tossers, Daly looks for pitchers who have or project to develop a plus secondary: “It’s just what you have to have if you’re going to pitch in the big leagues with below-average velocity.” A look around the league confirms that the great soft-tossers all have a legitimate off-speed weapon. Marco Estrada’s changeup is a bastard, a pitch that falls off the table 56 feet of its way to the plate; given the chance, good hitters from both sides of the plate will flail at the offering all night long. Ditto for Kyle Hendricks. His change doesn’t drop quite as violently as Estrada’s but the late hop he gets from his cambio is a devastatingly effective vanishing act all the same. Hundreds of minor leaguers throw harder or have similar command profiles; few can list a true out pitch on their resume.

The success that Tomlin, Estrada, and Hendricks have enjoyed this postseason has prompted Daly and Gillette to wonder whether the recent velocity surge will taper off in time. They, like just about any scout or executive, will tell you that throwing hard is only part of what makes a successful pitcher. Daly says “I’ll take a guy who can throw a well-spotted fastball at 88 over someone who throws 93 but can’t command the ball.” Gillette shares his sentiment, and he certainly sees a role for the soft-tosser going forward: “It can be frustrating watching guys who throw really hard but have 20 command. How about that pitching matchup in game 3, 1-0 and only one pitch from a starter was over 90 mph. It’s gonna come full circle.”

Regardless of the precise velocity that the league’s softest-throwing starters reach, even the best scouts will always struggle to identify which soft-tossers have a chance to climb the daunting minor ladder. Whether they’re finished products developmentally or not, it’s tough to gauge whether this pitcher’s 88-mph fastball and good command will fool hitters better than that one’s. A lack of intelligence, gumption, bat-missing offspeed pitch, or competitive fire dooms many pitchers who share a profile with the Tomlins of the league, but it can sometimes take years for these deficiencies to manifest themselves. Even the scouts who have struck gold didn’t always know what they had. As an example, when asked whether Cleveland got a steal with Tomlin in the 19th round, Daly could only give a little chuckle.

“Naw, that’s about where I had him.”

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I know he does not qualify because he is a reliever but there is no more amazing soft tosser than Koji Uehara. What separates him from the pitchers above is his truly unbelievable K/BB rate. All these starters have rather low strikeout rates but Uehara has averaged over 10K's per 9 innings in every season but his first. This falls somewhere in the incredible but true category.
Ty Blach waited a long time for a chance with the Giants. He did ok.