Chris Tillman of the Orioles entered the 2013 season as a disappointment. For a few years running the Orioles had talked about him inspiring confidence that Tillman was going to be a top end starter. Year after year he disappointed. In fact, he made at least 11-starts each year from 2009-11, and in that time he had gone 7-15 with a 5.58 ERA, a 1.57 WHIP an a mere 5.78 K/9 ratio. Those aren’t the numbers of a top of the rotation starter, they’re not even worthy of belonging to a bottom of the rotation starter. Things started to turn in 2012 when Tillman made 15 starts going 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, but people were still nervous to go all in with a young arm who just hadn’t been able to dominate big league hitters for any length of time. Thirty-three starts later everyone knows who Chris Tillman is, and nearly everyone wants him to be on their 2014 fantasy baseball squad.
Tillman went 16-7 in his 33 starts least season with that win total matching the number he posted over his first 51 starts. Unfortunately he only won two of his last six decisions and just twice over his last 11 starts, but anyone would take that 16-7 record to the bank without complaint. Tillman also flashed durability as he was able to last for 206.1 innings over those 33 starts. All of this is very positive stuff from a guy working his first full season in the big leagues.
As always when I write about pitchers I think it’s worth spending a moment looking at strikeouts and walks. Some good news, some so-so news in those two categories. For his career Tillman has struck out 6.87 batters per nine, a mark more than a half batter below the league average. He had also failed to post a mark over 6.91 in any of his first four truncated big league seasons. Year five in 2013 was different though as his K-rate jumped a full batter to 7.81 per nine innings. While I tend to be a bit wary of jumps like this it should be noted that the mark was actually 8.62 per nine in the second half which intrigues me. There is also the fact that the 25 year old righty had frequently been able to strike out a batter per inning during his minor league career. As for the walks, nothing great there, but his 2.97 BB/9 mark from last season was slightly better than the league average. The resulting 2.63 K/BB ratio, just slightly below his 2.66 mark for 2012-13, is again a solid mark even if it doesn’t jump off the page.
A problem for Tillman is the fly ball and the homer run. His career 0.91 GB/FB ratio, supported by his 0.97 mark last season, is about 20 percent below the league average. As a result, there are more fly balls than one would like to see. On the plus side he did drop his 44.5 percent mark from 2011-12 down to 40 percent last season which is a nice improvement if he can sustain it. However, for the fourth time in five years he permitted a ton of homers leading to a HR/9 mark over 1.25. His mark of 1.44 last season was buoyed by an elevated 14.2 percent HR/F ratio, but to be fair that was the third time in five years that the mark had crested 14 percent. He gives up a lot of fly balls and they frequently leave the yard (also meaning he’s not a great match for his home ball yard so it’s not a shock to see that he had a 4.01 ERA at Camden Yards). Therefore, his ERA could swing up to a run (+/-) from season to season based upon the big fly, so that has to make you a bit nervous.
Tillman did improve his first strike percentage, we all know how important it is to get ahead of batters, for the third straight season (50, 53, 55 and 57 percent in 2013). Otherwise, the majority of the measures having to do with swing rates, contact rates etc, were well with the margins of the expected despite his success. It should also be noted that Tillman was very solid against all batters, no matter which side of the plate they swing from, in 2013.
vs. lefties: .247/.11/.391 with a HR every 25.4 plate appearances
vs. righties: .232/.293/.378 with a HR every 25.5 plate appearances
Given who Tillman was always thought to be, his 2013 effort should have been expected. Unfortunately, it took him five big league seasons to reach the heights he flashed that made one one of four pitchers to win 15 games with 175 strikeouts, an ERA under 3.75 an a WHIP under 1.25 (the others were Max Scherzer, Adam Wainwright and Clayton Kershaw). Is Tillman an elite hurler like those other three? Not even close. Could he settle in as a strong SP3 in mixed leagues? That’s certainly possible. I would be a bit nervous about the big fly as well as the fact that he didn’t show tremendous across the board production improvement last season with the skills, but there is no doubt that he’s lifted himself to the point that we can start to have a discussion about the position the Orioles long suggested he could assume, that of a top of the rotation starter.
By Ray Flowers