Having Faith in Chris Tillman

Posted Wednesday April 17, 2013 at 10:44:33 pm in Real Sports

It is a tough pill to swallow. The so called cavalry for the Baltimore Orioles was supposed to be that of Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton. But where are they now?

I'll tell you where they are.

Brad Bergesen is no longer playing for a Major League Baseball team. Instead he's pitching for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan. Brian Matusz, a former 1st round draft pick that was picked 4th overall by the Orioles in 2008, is now an effective bullpen arm for the Orioles. Jake Arrieta is holding on for dear life for the 5th starter's spot. Zach Britton is pitching for the Norfolk Tides. And Chris Tillman is the Orioles 4th starter.

Let it all sink in for a moment.

Of the 5 cavalry members, one is out of MLB, one is in the bullpen, one has been ineffective and injured (Britton), and the other 2 are in the rotation. Yes, if I told you that 40% of the cavalry would be in the starting rotation you'd probably be pessimistic.

But what if I told you the fact that Arrieta and Tillman being in the rotation isn't much to write home about? I'll eventually write another blog post about the mystical Jake Arrieta, but just know this: his ERA has went up every year in the majors since his rookie year in 2010.

  • 2010: 4.66 ERA, 89 ERA+
  • 2011: 5.05 ERA, 83 ERA+
  • 2012: 6.20 ERA, 68 ERA+

Yes, Jake Arrieta has not had a single year that came close to sniffing an average ERA+. But he's in the starting rotation. And this is most likely his last chance to stick with the Orioles rotation with Gausman, Bundy and a host of other depth options in the minors waiting for their chance (Freddy Garcia, Jair Jurrjens, Steve Johnson, Zach Britton, etc.).

So, that really leaves Chris Tillman....the subject of my blog post.

Chris Tillman came over to the Orioles in the February 2008 trade of Erik Bedard that brought back Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Kameron Mickolio, Tony Butler and Chris Tillman to the Orioles. At the time Tillman was 19 years old. He and Adam Jones were the center pieces of the Erik Bedard trade.

At the tender age of 20, he put up some terrific numbers at AA Bowie for the Baysox:

11-4, 3.18 ERA, 135 2/3 IP, 1.327 WHIP, 10.2 SO/9, 7.6 H/9, 4.3 BB/9

These were very impressive numbers, especially for a 20 year old. It was easy to see why he was drafted in the 2nd round by the Mariners.

In 2009, Tillman pitched for the Norfolk Tides to start the season putting up the following numbers:

8-6, 2.70 ERA, 96 2/3 IP, 1.148 WHIP, 9.2 SO/9, 7.9 H/9, 2.4 BB/9

So it was a no brainer when the Orioles called him up on July 29, 2009 to make his major league debut as a 21 year old.

What he ended up doing for the Baltimore Orioles was actually not very impressive at all especially given his pedigree and minor league numbers with the Baysox and the Tides. His 2009 Baltimore Orioles season went something like this:

2-5, 5.40 ERA, 65 IP, 1.554 WHIP, 5.4 SO/9, 10.7 H/9, 3.3 BB/9

The only respectable number being his walk rate. Everything else was way up (H/9, WHIP) or way down (SO/9). It was a real head scratcher.

In 2010, he put up great numbers for the Norfolk Tides once again:

11-7, 3.34 ERA, 121 1/3 IP, 1.236 WHIP, 7.0 SO/9, 8.9 H/9, 2.2 BB/9

One of the alarming numbers at the time was his SO/9. Down to 7 from 9.2 just a year ago at AAA.

Either way, he came back up to the Orioles in 2010, and put up the following numbers:

2-5, 5.87 ERA, 53 2/3 IP, 1.528 WHIP, 5.2 SO/9, 8.6 H/9, 5.2 BB/9

Those numbers were very discouraging. WHIP didn't improve. His strikeout rate didn't improve. His walk rate got much worse. The only number that stood out was that the number of hits allowed decreased. Another disappointing season by Chris.

In 2011, Chris would once again split time between the minors and majors at the age of 23. The stats for each being the following:

  • Tides: 3-6, 5.19 ERA, 76 1/3 IP, 1.507 WHIP, 6.4 SO/9, 9.1 H/9, 4.5 BB/9
  • Orioles: 3-5, 5.52 ERA, 62 IP, 1.645 WHIP, 6.7 SO/9, 11.2 H/9, 3.6 BB/9

Across the board very disappointing numbers for both the minors and majors. For the Orioles, they saw his WHIP go up every year from 2009-2011. One promising sign was his strikeout rate went up, his walk rate got better, and his home run rate decreased. There was some progress...but not enough to really prepare the Orioles for what he'd give them in 2012.

2012 was, of course, a magical season for the Baltimore Orioles. But it would be the one season where a member of the cavalry would not only excel...but he'd downright dominate.

In 2012, Chris Tillman posted the following stat line:

9-3, 2.93 ERA, 86 IP, 1.047 WHIP, 6.9 SO/9, 6.9 H/9, 2.5 BB/9

Those numbers were downright impressive. Very impressive. Walk rate was phenomenal. Hit rate was phenomenal. ERA was phenomenal. The only number that wasn't all that amazing was his strikeout rate. But, it was up from his past years. The biggest key to Tillman's success, however, was not only much better command...but much better velocity. Oh...and a larger arsenal of pitches. To view the PITCH/fx data for Tillman over the years, you can click here.

  • 2009: fastball, curveball, and changeup
  • 2010: fastball, curveball, and changeup
  • 2011: fastball, curveball, changeup, slider and cutter
  • 2012: fastball, curveball, changeup, slider and cutter

In 2011, Tillman started throwing a slider and a cutter. 2 pitches that he didn't have in 2009 or 2010. Having 5 pitches at his disposal as well as having a full year under his belt helped Tillman have a phenomenal 2012 for the Orioles. But let's dive a little deeper.

In 2011, the velocity ranges were the following for his pitches:

  • Fastball: 85-94, average at 89
  • Curveball: 72-84, average at 75
  • Changeup: 75-85, average at 79
  • Slider: 80-87, average at 84
  • Cutter: 85-94, average at 89

In 2012, the velocity ranges were:

  • Fastball: 85-97, average at 92
  • Curveball: 73-80, average at 77
  • Changeup: 78-85, average at 82
  • Slider: 80-89, average at 84
  • Cutter: 83-97, average at 92

What you can see just from the above comparisons, every pitch aside from his slider was up an average of 2-3 mph. 

His best pitches in 2012 were his cutter, curveball, and most importantly: his changeup. Using Pitch Values, his changeup was 7 runs above average. The interesting thing about Tillman in 2012 is that his fastball was actually -4.6 runs above average. You may think this is terrible, but it's something he's improved on every year in the majors:

  • 2009: -11.6
  • 2010: -8.6
  • 2011: -7.6
  • 2012: -4.6

His fastball improving coupled with his cutter, curveball, and changeup all being plus pitches all made him the standout that he was in 2012. And it's also why I have faith in Chris Tillman.

Yes, Chris hasn't made it into the 6th inning at all this year. Yes he's walked 8 people in 14 innings. But he's also struck out 15 in 14 innings. That's a good sign. Allowing 19 hits in 14 is not particularly good...and neither are the 8 walks. But I think Chris is still in his own personal spring training.

Let's not forget that Chris was shutdown with an abdominal strain towards the end of spring training. This is probably still having some lingering effects as he's now facing major league hitters as opposed to college hitters (his last start of the spring where he threw 81 pitches in 5 innings).

Chris's curveball has looked very good. His velocity has been sitting between 90-94mph. He doesn't quite have his changeup working for him. I think over the next 2-3 outings we'll see an improved Chris Tillman. Less walks, less hits and more of the same when it comes to the strikeouts. 

The key will be improving control, but also him establishing his changeup as a standout pitch once again. If he can do both of those, then he should have a similar year that he had in 2012. 

The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer’s view