Bird Flying Below the Radar: Chris Tillman

The Orioles got off to a fast start this year, but have been coming back to Earth of late.  Still, the club is second in the American League East, and seven games over .500.  Not too shabby for a team expected by most to be the doormat of the division.  It’s unlikely they’ll remain second in the division, but if they want any hope of doing so, they’ll need better starting pitching.  Jason Hammel has been excellent by all measures.  His ERA is 3.29, and supported by a 3.33 FIP, 3.40 xFIP, 3.53 tERA, and 3.49 SIERA.  The only other starter with an ERA under four is Wei-Yin Chen, who got pummelled on Thursday, and has no advanced measures that support his 3.73 ERA.  Starter Jake Arrieta has been the anti-Chen.  Arrieta’s 5.55 ERA is more than a full run above his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA.  The rest of the rotation, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter, have been bad by both standard measures and advanced measures.  Eventually, the failures of the back of the rotation should open the door to Chris Tillman, who is having his best season since 2009. 

Tillman has spent each of the last three seasons between the minors, mostly Triple-A, and the majors.  Last year was a disaster as he got lit up in the majors and the minors.  His walk rate was the highest it had ever been in the upper-minors, and his strikeout rate was the lowest.  That’s a recipe for disaster.  In addition to the statistical struggles, his fastball velocity was notably down according to his PITCHf/x data available on his Brooks Baseball player card.  Tillman throws just one fastball, a four-seamer, and when he broke into the majors, it had an average velocity of 92.79 mph.  His four-seam fastball velocity dropped in 2010 to 91.11 mph, and bottomed out last year at 90.12 mph.  The pitch has been a below average bat-misser, yet he has thrown it more than 60 percent of the time in the majors.  That’s an approach that simply won’t cut it in the bigs. 

Beyond his fastball, he throws two breaking balls, a slider and curveball, and a change-up.  For his career, his breaking balls have been below average swing-and-miss offerings, but his change-up has been almost exactly average.  His slider and curveball have both been slightly above average in missing lumber at times, with the slider showing an above average whiff/swing rate in 2010, and the curveball doing so in 2009.  Both were highly hittable last year.  I have been unable to find any updated information on his velocity and the sharpness of his secondary pitches, but Craig Calcaterra reported back in February at Hardball Talk that Tillman was in the best shape of his life.  These reports are a regular thing in the spring, and have become fodder for many a blogger, but the results this year seem to be supporting Tillman’s assertion.

Pitching in the International League for the third year in a row, he has a 3.63 ERA and 1.32 WHIP in 16 games spanning 89.3 innings.  Those numbers alone don’t tell much about how he has pitched.  He has dominated hitters with a 9.27 K/9, and is throwing strikes with a 3.02 BB/9, good for a better than 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.  His ability to miss bats and limit free passes has helped him post a 2.98 FIP.  Tillman has been at his best this month.  In the month of June he has made made five starts totaling 28.2 innings, and in that time has a 1.57 BB/9 and a 10.67 K/9 which have helped him post a 2.51 ERA and 0.98 WHIP.  Historicaly, Tillman has been a flyball pitcher.  His career groundball rate in the majors is 38.7 percent, and according to Minor League Central, he had a 39.6 percent groundball rate for Norfolk last year.  This year, he has taken on a more groundball heavy approach, coaxing worm burners 46.2 percent of the time. 

Tillman has roughly a full season’s worth of major league innings under his belt to date, at 180.2 innings pitched.  While they haven’t been pretty, they have also come at a relatively young age.  He turned 24 in April, and it is probably too soon to write him off as a bust.  It shouldn’t be long before he gets another crack at major league hitting, and he may be poised to surprise some folks.