Chris Tillman is the de facto ace of the Orioles’ pitching staff. He was the Opening Day starter for the O’s this season, and takes the #1 slot in the rotation for the club. While Tillman isn’t a top 15 starter in MLB, he is the top guy in the O’s rotation.
This season he has pitched like it so far. Over 3 starts he’s already produced 0.4 fWAR and $2 Million worth of value for the club. Over 21.1 innings he’s allowed just 2 earned runs, both on solo blasts. Tillman has always shown great stuff, but has had a few nagging issues that plagued him throughout his career. Tillman tends to give up a lot of home runs and walk a lot of batters.
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This season we’ve seen Tillman address these issues to some degree, no doubt playing a role in his performance thus far. Tillman has walked less than 4% of the batters he’s faced this season. While it’s unrealistic to think that Tillman is going to walk half as many batters as his best season as a pro, some improvement in his walk rate will go a long way into him improving as a pitcher.
This season his strikeout rate is actually its lowest since 2010, but his K/BB ratio is nearly double what it was last season. It seems that Tillman is aiming for strikeouts less early in 2014, and trying to keep pitch counts manageable, while reducing free passes to hitters. The O’s have a very good defense behind him, so letting more batters put the bat on the ball isn’t going to hurt him too much.
The one problem for Tillman with letting opposing hitters put the bat on the ball more is that he’s always been prone to giving up home runs. This season he’s actually done a good job at limiting home runs, despite the fact that both runs against him came off of homers. Limiting baserunners (fewer walks!) means these home runs have just been solo shots as opposed to multi-run home runs.
This trend was clearly visible in his game against Toronto where he allowed just 4 base runners over 8 strong innings.
Still though, he needs to improve his approach so as to not give up quite so many home runs. Tillman has a long history of pitching up in the zone, and that hasn’t changed dramatically over the years.
In 2013 Tillman threw his fastball approximately 3 inches above the center of the zone from a vertical perspective. That is, Tillman generally threw his fastball up, and it averaged being about belt high. His changeup, curve, and cutter all average below the middle of the zone.
In 2014 not much has changed, though it’s worth noting that his fastball was down in his two most recent (and successful) starts, whereas it started the year up. The image below shows his vertical pitch location from 2013 to 2014:
It will be important for Tillman to keep the ball down if he wants to be successful in 2014. His vertical pitch location in the past two games is a trend we’d like to see him continure moving forward.
We’ve seen already that leaving the ball up will hurt you. Tillman’s two home runs given up showcase that fact.
The pitch location for the home run that Sizemore hit was up and in, and Sizemore just pulled it out over the right field fence:
And the location of the pitch. This one is a little more difficult to see, but the pitch is once again clearly up in the zone:
Keeping the ball down will be important for Chris Tillman. If he can continue to improve his command and throw strikes, then his ability to keep the ball down and limit home runs will be all that keeps him from being a true ace.
Tillman’s early 2014 results have been very promising for O’s fans. He’s made some progress over a solid 2013 campaign, and positioned himself as a reliable feature of the starting rotation. There’s still room for improvement, but with this being Tillman’s age 26 season, there’s still reason to believe that his ability to pitch can still improve.