2009 O’s Retrospective: Chris Tillman

In part fourteen of my almost 50 part series “Better Know An Oriole” (otherwise known as 2009 Orioles Retrospective), I take a look at rookie right-hander Chris Tillman… THE FIGHTIN’ BENDER-ER!

Tillman entered 2009 coming off a very good 2008 at Double-A, as one of the top prospects in baseball, and – in my opinion – the best of the Big Three.  At just 21 years old, I didn’t expect Tillman to pitch in the majors this year outside of perhaps a September call-up. He made a very strong case for himself in Triple-A however, with a 2.70 ERA (backed up by a 2.76 FIP) in 96.2 IP. He kept striking batters out at a good clip (9.22 K/9), greatly improved his control (from 4.31 BB/9 to 2.42 BB/9), and continued limiting the long-ball (0.47 HR/9).  That last part was of concern to me, since Tillman is definitely a flyball pitcher and that tends not to play so well in a park like Camden Yards.

Tillman was called up to the majors on July 29th to face the Royals (he got a no-decision), and ended up making 12 big leagues starts. In his 65 innings pitched he had a 5.40 ERA and a somewhat unsightly 6.10 FIP. The strike-outs never really materialized, and even with a 5 IP, 8 K performance against the Yankees, Tillman only had a below average 5.40 K/9. He did do a good job limiting the free passes to 3.32 BB/9, which is a very good sign – it leads me to believe that a lot of his improvement in control from previous years will stick, since he went up a couple levels and still kept the walks down. It was the home runs – the thing I had been worried about from his minor league numbers – that killed him. You just can’t succeed in the majors giving up 2.08 HR/9, and even adjusting his home runs allowed per flyball down from 15.2% to a more normal rate, he still has a 5.40 expected FIP according to The Hardball Times. Tillman will need to either get more strike-outs or allow fewer flyballs to stay in the majors – and he’ll need to do both to become an effective pitcher.

When talking about Tillman’s pitches, the first thing you need to mention is that curveball.  It is a big 12-6 hook with a lot of break, and when he was able to throw it over for strikes it made life very difficult on batters. FanGraphs has the curve being worth 0.30 runs better than average per 100 thrown. His change-up was actually his most effective pitch, being worth 1.41 better than average per 100 – that’s in James Shields-Cole Hamels-Mark Buehrle territory (this year). It doesn’t get a lot of sink, but it does tail quite a bit and Tillman seemed to often be able to fool batters with it.  I had been expecting his fastball to be a plus offering, but it was only about average velocity-wise (92 mph) and was relatively straight (even looking like a cutter on occasion). The -1.37 runs it was worth relative to average per 100 was one of the worse marks in baseball, though obviously in a small sample size (like all these stats).

Sometimes it seemed like Tillman was pitching more like a crafty veteran than a young fire-baller, showing his fastball but using his off-speed offerings both in the zone for strikes and to get hitters to chase. Getting better at locating the fastball down in the strike-zone will go a long way towards helping Tillman reach his still impressive ceiling.

While the results in the majors weren’t great (he ended up as about a replacement level pitcher with -0.1 WAR according to FanGraphs), Tillman is very young and very talented, and showed some flashes of that promise at times in 2009. Next year he’s almost certain to start out in the rotation, and we’ll see what adjustments he’s able to make.

Photo by Keith Allison and used under the Creative Commons License 2.0.