Player Profile: Chris Tillman
90 starts into his major league career Chris Tillman bears at least some close resemblance to what many O’s fans expected out of the highly touted prospect. While Tillman’s first few years in the Oriole’s organization were filled with hot streaks and cold stretches along with promotions and demotions; his past few seasons have been much stronger.
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Since July 4th, of 2012 Tillman has made 55 starts for the Orioles and hasn’t had to face the threat of demotion following a rough outing.
Tillman has simplified his mechanics in an effort to make his delivery more repeatable and gain better command of his pitches. Compare these two GIFs of Tillman’s delivery with 2011 on the top and 2014 on the bottom:
Both of these GIFs come with no runners on base, so we are in fact comparing apples to apples here. The first difference that should jump off the screen right away is that Tillman’s full windup has significantly changed. Not long ago I suggested that Tillman get rid of his full windup altogether, and he’s gotten fairly close to that by simplifying his windup significantly.
This change started in 2012, and has continued to evolve to the very clean and simple setup you can see down to the left.
Tillman no longer sets up square to home plate, he’s now already turned sideways like he would be if he were pitching from the stretch. His relatively large step from 2011 has been replaced with a tiny backwards step today, which keeps unecessary movement to a minimum.
Additionally his left shoulder is pointed directly at the target until the moment his right arm starts coming forward, which keeps him on track. Previously he had to rotate his entire upper body, and his left shoulder was actually pointing towards the right batter’s box as opposed to home plate.
Furthermore his leg kick is still similar, though he has better balance with his new mechanics, meaning he’s not as off-balance at release. This is prominently visible in his lower leg kick, something unfortunately cut short on the bottom GIF.
Often pitchers improve by removing extraneous movement from their mechanics as it makes them easier to repeat and keep balanced. While not true for all pitchers, it is something worth paying attention to. Some of the best pitchers in baseball like Yu Darvish have the most simple mechanics.
Tillman’s repertoire has evolved over the seasons, just as his mechanics have. In 2011 Tillman was a four pitch pitcher as he mixed in a fourseam fastball, knuckle curve ball, straight change up, and cut fastball (in order of usage).
In 2012 Tillman mixed in some sinkers (and/or two seam fastballs) but he rarely threw them. In fact, he threw 25 sinkers over 15 starts. Approximately 1.75% of his pitches in 2012 were sinkers. It’s worth noting that his usage was highest in July, but tapered off as the season continued.
In 2013 and 2014 Tillman was back to his original four pitch mix, though his change up is showing up more often as he’s throwing is more than 15% of the time in 2014, compared to just 11% of the time in 2011. This is partially a benefit of improved command, as Tillman can now use his change as a tool to get left-handed hitters out.
Tillman’s knuckle curve ball is one of the most fun breaking balls in baseball to watch, as it has cartoon-like break when thrown properly. Tillman uses a knuckle curve grip, which you can see in this image here:
A. It’s my favorite pitch
B. The batter stands no chance when Tillman delivers it
Tillman’s fastball has been the focus of much discussion as his velocity has changed dramatically over the course of his MLB career. When Tillman was a heralded prospect he sat around 92-93 mph, but that velocity declined as the years passed. In 2011 his average fastball velocity was just 90.36 mph.
When Tillman came up to the big league in July of 2012 he was throwing harder, and averaged a career high of 93.12 mph on his fastball. Many people saw Tillman throwing 95 or 96 in any given start and declared that his newly found velocity was the key to his resurgence. This was largely incorrect as his fastball command is much more important than his velocity, especially since his curveball is such a large breaking pitch for him. Tillman’s velocity is trending down (92.75 mph in 2013 and 91.92 mph so far in 2014), but he’s be fine at that velocity if his command is strong.
Tillman has basically lived and died with his fastball/curve mix, but his change up has been crucial to his success in recent seasons. Over time Tillman has made a clear effort to improve his change and make it more difficult to identify for opposing hitters. He’s finally done just that, and you can see from the image below that the movement on Tillman’s change up has in fact changed over time.
The above chart shows that Tillman has actually gotten less movement on his change up over time, which seems to be a negative trend. However, this allows him to control the pitch more, and makes it seem more like his fastball which is obviously a goal of the change. Below is one additional chart about his change up showing how over time his change has moved less and the pitches in the zone and out of the zone have become more similar.
That in turn makes it difficult for opposing hitters to decide whether or not to swing or lay off of the pitch. The change up is a critical tool for Tillman as it helps with possible platoon issues. More importantly it keeps opposing hitters off balance as they have a third pitch to watch out for besides just the fastball and curve.
Finally Tillman’s cutter is the last tool that he has in his toolbox, and it’s also one of the most controversial. Landon Jones of Beyond the Box Score wrote up the proclivity for Tillman’s cutter to go for home runs. So far in 2014 Tillman has yet to give up a HR off his cutter, a good sign that he’s using it better and not leaving it up in the zone. He’s throwing it less than 5% of the time, just enough to make hitters worry about it, but not enough for it to become a liability.
The beginning of the 2014 season saw Tillman prove any doubters wrong as he got off to a very hot start. He’s cooled off a bit since, but he’s shown many of the intangible traits you look for in a staff ace. Take, for example, his start against the Pirates on May 1st where he threw nearly 50 pitches in the first inning but managed to limit the damage and settle down. He nearly made it through five innings despite throwing nearly half of the pitches he’d normally throw over an entire game in the first inning. This was crucial because the Orioles would have been in serious trouble going to the bullpen any earlier in the second game of a double header.
Chris Tillman is being paid $546,000 this season a modest raise over his 2013 salary. This is his final pre-arbitration season and Tillman will enter his first of three arbitration seasons in 2015 where his salaries will go up fairly significantly. Using the 30%/50%/80% model for arbitration salaries we can expect Tillman to be paid something close to:
2015: $3 Million
2016: $5.75 Million
2017: $10 Million
Again, those are rough estimates, but it would bring Tillman’s total salary to $18.75 Million over the next three seasons, a reasonable sum for a guy like Tillman who has proven to pitch well in an extremely tough division.
The idea of extending Tillman has to be something the O’s front office has explored, at least internally. Given that he’s about 3.5 seasons away from free agency an extension could allow the O’s to buy back some of Tillman’s free agent seasons at a discounted rate for what he might earn should he hit the open market.
The biggest obstacle to this? Can Tillman sustain the performance he’s shown over the last 50+ games. Has Tillman in fact been lucky in his ability to put up his numbers the past few seasons?
My short answer to that is no. Let’s look at BABIP, everyone’s favorite luck stat. Over 8 seasons BABIP stabilizes for pitchers meaning that after that period of time we can say that a pitcher’s BABIP is more than just luck. Tillman’s been in the majors for parts of 6 seasons now and his .276 career BABIP seems to be falling in line with his recent performances. As such it seems reasonable that you can expect his true BABIP talent level to be ~ .280, pretty close to where he’s been recently.
Additionally he hasn’t had a streak of leaving runners on base, another potential sign of overly good fortunes. His HR/FB% has also shown modest fluctuation, but generally around his career rate of 12.5% which again isn’t so low that we’d expect regression.
Tillman is a key part of this O’s team, and the team would be wise to look into at least providing some cost certainty through his arbitration seasons if they can also snag a free agent year or two.