Chris Tillman was more than a pleasant surprise for his performance over the 15 starts he made for the Baltimore Orioles this past season. It was more of a relief that a young guy who at one point and time had the promise of becoming a top of the rotation starter, sooner rather than later, in his career had seemed to finally put it together and could actually pitch through an opposing team’s lineup more than once over.
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Tillman came over from the Seattle Mariners in that Erik Bedard trade and it was he, not Adam Jones, who was widely considered the prize of that haul the organization got in exchange for Bedard. Don’t get me wrong, Jones was one of the top position prospects the Mariners had in their system and he was basically major league ready when the Orioles acquired him. But top of the line pitching prospects are hard to find, especially when they are power arms like Tillman and the receiving team (the Orioles) were in such dire straits with their starting rotation, as well as the obvious lack of depth in the minors.
Tillman finally made his major league debut with the Orioles in 2009, after having spent a little more than a season and a half between Double-A and Triple-A in our minor league system. Needless to say, Tillman looked nothing like that top of the line prospect we believed we had in our system and made 12 starts for the team down the stretch. He went 2-5 with a 5.40 ERA, a 1.63 K/BB rate, and he was giving up a little more than two homeruns game.
Considering the fact that was his rookie season the growing pains were expected so no big deal – he’ll be the better for his struggles the following season, at least that was the thought. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and he posted ERA’s north of five in 2010 and 2011, although his 2011 FIP (3.99) relative to his ERA (5.52) suggested he was more unlucky than bad that year. Nevertheless, fans and talent evaluators alike were at the point of all but giving up on Tillman heading into the 2012 season, as he had three years of major league experience to “put it all together” at that point.
The one key thing in all of this that many seemed to be overlooking was the fact that Tillman was still just 24 years old coming into the 2012 season. What that meant is that he was still pretty young, relative to other starting pitchers coming up through the minors and making their major league debuts, when he made his major league debut in 2009. Had it not been for the Orioles complete lack of capable starters going into the 2009 season we probably wouldn’t have seen Tillman at all that year – nor should we have.
Now that Tillman has finally put it together, having a solid 2012 campaign, we have no choice but to wonder whether he will build upon that success or regress. Part of his taking that next step, towards fulfilling all of that potential the Orioles saw in him when they demanded he be included in the Bedard trade, will be to prove he can give his team close to – or more – 200 innings of solid work out of the rotation. That means 30 or more starts in 2013 and it also means he will have to remain consistent enough from one start to the next to work deep enough into each game to reach that goal.
And that should be his goal – any top of the rotation starter worth the title is a guy that will give you 30 or more starts a year and couple that with a solid 200 or more innings. Anything less than that and you’re not deserving of being considered your teams number one starter – regardless of whether you’re a true ACE or not (not all teams even have an ACE and I think there are only six or seven of them in baseball anyway).
So does Tillman have a chance to work 200 or more (quality) innings for the Orioles next season?
The first thing we’ll need to take a look at is his workload since first beginning his professional career in 2006 and determining if he’s built up the innings, in a responsible way, that would indicate he could handle 200 or more innings without becoming a serious injury risk.
Here is the breakdown of Tillman’s workload, by innings, from 2006 to 2012:
2006: 97.2 IP (30.2 IP in minors and 67 IP in High School)
2007: 135.2 IP
2008: 135.2 IP
2009: 161.2 IP
2010: 175 IP
2011: 138.1 IP
2012: 178.2 IP
Taking a look at his workload, and the way it has progressed throughout his career – save for 2011 where his innings pitched actually went down by almost 40 innings – he’s been on a pretty steady and responsible progression plan through the minors and into the majors.
The most notable jump Tillman took was from the 2006-2007 seasons (38 inning jump) and then again from his 2011-2012 seasons (40.1 inning jump). While he didn’t endure any injuries or have any cause for concern related to his physical health during his 2007 minor-league season, he did experience a bit of setback in a September 2 start this past season, against the New York Yankees.
Tillman had to exit his start against the Yankees after completing just three innings after complaining of elbow stiffness. He was then held out of action for two weeks before making his next start on September 17 against the Seattle Mariners. So far in his career that bit of elbow stiffness has been the only injury scare he has had. He appeared to have recovered well enough from it and went on to four more starts to close out the season.
Other than his reasonable workload progression throughout his professional career, the other thing that gives me reason to believe he can handle a 200-plus inning workload in 2013 is the fact that he was able to work six innings or more in nine of his 15 starts in 2012, and also threw 100 or more pitches in nine of his 15 starts as well. For many pitchers, and managers, 100 pitches is typically that benchmark where a manager pulls the starter no matter what for fear of risking an injury. Orioles Manager Buck Showalter did a phenomenal job of managing his starting pitchers and bullpen, thus allowing Tillman to continue to mow down opposing hitters – regardless of pitch count – as long as there were no obvious signs of him getting tired or a breakdown in his mechanics.
If the risk of injury due to an increase in Tillman’s workload from 2011 to 2012 is still a concern for you, most notably due to the research done by Tom Verducci and properly coined “The Verducci Effect” – which states that pitchers under the age of 25 that have an increase in innings pitched by 30 or more from one season to the next are at higher risk of injury than their older counterparts – then one last thing that should give you cause for hope is this:
Chris Tillman is a big guy – a guy who stands at 6’5” and weighs in at around 210 pounds. He’s a power arm that relies on his fastball to get ahead in the count before locking guys up with his breaking pitches. He throws his fastball a tad more than 60% of the time, averaging between 92 and 93 mph on it, and has a changeup that he mixes in at 14% rate and a full ten mph slower – that’s something that completely wreaks havoc on a hitter’s timing. He also throws a curve and a cut fastball, but he’s predominantly a fastball pitcher and that causes less stress on his arm.