If you’ve watched any of Chris Tillman’s starts this season, you’ve probably seen some great games. Tillman leads the Orioles in quality starts (14) and is second on the staff in fWAR (1.3). If you tune it at 7:05 every night, you’ve probably also seen some messy first innings. That’s because Tillman is one of the worst pitchers in the AL in the first inning.
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Chris Tillman carries a 6.75 ERA1 and a 1.83 WHIP in the first inning of games this season. That ERA puts Tillman at 114 out of 137 pitchers in the AL who have pitched in the first inning. Tillman ranks 118th in WHIP. As expected, the bottom and top sections of those rankings table are filled with pitchers who have thrown just a few first innings (or even just a few outs in one first inning). Regardless of outliers, Tillman is clearly noticeably worse than his peers in the first inning.
In fact, it doesn’t end there. Chris Tillman also gets tossed around in the second inning: batters have an OPS of .914 against Tillman in the second inning of games this season. That’s right, every batter turns into Jose Bautista in the second inning when Tillman’s on the bump. He’s sporting a 6.14 ERA in the second inning this season. His 2014 ERA figures in the first and second innings are nearly a full run above Tillman’s career first and second inning stats, but the trend is consistent: Chris Tillman gets noticeably better in the third inning of games.
Why is this the case? Well, for one, he stops issuing free passes. Tillman has issued 25 walks in the first two innings of games this season and just 27 walks in all other innings. That’s good for a 4.89 BB/9 in the first two innings and a 2.51 BB/9 thereafter. In terms of walk frequency, Tillman transforms from Pedro Villarreal (4.91 BB/9 from 2012-2014) to Stephen Strasburg (2.50 BB/9 2012-2014).
He also strikes slightly more batters out, though the change isn’t as drastic. In the first two innings of games this season, Tillman carries a 5.87 K/9 rate – not terrible, and comparable to Bartolo Colon over 2012-2014. He has a 6.03 K/9 in all innings thereafter, enough to move him up with the likes of Jamie Moyer. Chris Tillman is not exactly a strikeout artist, but the 2.41 K/BB he holds in the 3-9 innings in 2014 compares with former offseason darling Matt Garza.
What does Tillman do differently starting in the third inning? One possibility is that he faces worse competition. The third inning usually features the bottom of the opposing lineup, batters who Tillman feasts on. In 2014, the bottom third of the order is hitting .210 off of Chris Tillman.2
Tillman’s breaking pitches also work better after the first inning. Check out this table showing ISO against Tillman’s pitches, and notice the precipitous drop in ISO against breaking pitches:
Hard and offspeed pitches also see a noticeable decrease in ISO against moving to the third inning, but an uptick in the fourth and fifth innings, respectively, suggest that there may be some advantage over hitters that show up in the third and fourth innings.
Part of the reason Tillman’s breaking pitches (and to a lesser extent, his offspeed stuff too) don’t get mashed after the second inning is that he stops grooving them.3 Tillman’s curveball is terrific when it’s not being hit, and when he gets it going, nobody can hit it. Whiffs per swing against his curve when it’s thrown outside the zone climbs from 12.5% in the first inning all the way to 58.3% in the fifth – without seeing any more swings per curveball thrown. He just throws it outside the zone more often in the fourth and fifth innings than he does in the first two innings, which isn’t a problem if the goal of the curve is to have the bottom drop and move out of danger.
It appears that Tillman actually does get better as the game goes on, and not that he just experiences better results. The second time he sees a batter, he performs better than the first, and the third time he faces a batter, he’s practically unhittable. The third time a player sees Chris Tillman in a game, they bat just .180/.236/.317.
Chris Tillman certainly has some room for improvement in the first inning, but he tends to throw the same percentage of pitches in the zone. Perhaps batters are more willing to be patient early in the game, or they’re more susceptible to being fooled by Tillman’s off speed pitches in later innings. He does grooves more pitches early, a serious issue for a starting pitcher facing the best batters on each team in the beginning of the game. If Tillman can throw his curveball as effectively early and groove fewer pitches in the first two innings, he could further his maturation into the #stafface he is often painted as.
1. I hate using ERA, but FIP doesn’t appear to be available on an inning-by-inning basis.
2. Imagine how silly those 7, 8, and 9 hitters will feel when they find out that they could just do better by batting against Tillman in the second inning!
3. It’s not a novel concept: stop giving good batters pitches to hit.