Will Chris Tillman Lose His Rotation Spot?

Chris Tillman did not have a good game yesterday (4.1 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 2 K), and with Brian Matusz set to return to the team shortly, there’s a good chance Tillman will lose his rotation spot*.

* Especially given some notes passed along from an O’s fan who was at the game in Oakland: as the pitching coach was coming back to the dugout after visiting Tillman on the mound, he said “f****** a******” (referring to the young right-hander), and when Buck took him out of the game Tillman didn’t even make eye-contact with him. I’m not usually one to put a lot of stock into non-performance stuff, but that can’t be good for Tillman if the decision between him and Brad Bergesen is close.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that Tillman is only 23 years old, and he honestly has made progress in the big leagues. His control is better – his walk rate has fallen from 5.2 BB/9 in 2010 to 3.8 BB/9 this year – and he’s more fully developed a fourth pitch (the cutter). The results aren’t really improving though.

Though his ERA is down from 5.87 to 4.69 and his FIP is down from 5.89 to 3.55, the drop in xFIP – 5.10 to 4.76 – is only more or less in line with the lower run environment this year. Tillman is striking out more batters, but a K/9 of 6 is still below average and it’s not actually coming as a result of missing more bats. Here are Tillman’s whiff rates by year:

Fastball Curve Change Cutter Overall
2011 8.9% 17.1% 18.1% 21.2% 12.8%
2010 12.1% 17.2% 26.1% 15.3%
2009 9.8% 25.6% 32.0% 16.8%

Some of the 2010 fastballs and change-ups were actually cutters, but I’m not going to go through and break them all out. You can see the overall drop. It’s good that Tillman has been able to strike out more batters despite this – it indicates he’s putting himself into better counts and putting away batters more often when he has the chance – but it’s still a worrying trend.

It does coincide with the drop in fastball velocity – from 92 mph to 90.4 mph to 88.9 mph – which makes some sense since batters don’t need to respect the heater and so are possibly less likely to be fooled by the change*. The lower velocity is especially concerning, since Tillman still uses the pitch up on the strike-zone often and it doesn’t have much movement on it. If he can learn to spot it better though, he should still be able to have some success with his other pitches** (which he can best utilize when ahead of batters).

* The pitch has also gone down in velocity from 2009/2010 to 2011, but I think that’s because of cutters being classified separately. That would mean the gap in velocity between it and the fastball is smaller, and the gap between the change and the cutter – which he’s using more often – is not large itself.

** Nick at Camden Depot noted that Tillman is making adjustments, and that”this season his curve is less recognizable out of the hand, and his change is finding more consistence in its fade and late tumble”. I think those can be plus pitches for him, but if he’s behind 2-0 then it’s hard to get max value out of a sick curve. Tillman can be an above average pitcher even throwing 88 mph, but he isn’t right now and there’s varying degrees of hope people can have in whether or not it’ll eventually happen.

Tillman’s luck has more or less evened out in 2011 – he’s only given up two home runs despite being an extreme flyball pitcher (a 2.7% HR/FB rate won’t continue), but he also has a .337 BABIP against (which also won’t continue). That’s why his xFIP lines up so well with his ERA. The problem is, those figures aren’t good enough. He’s more or less a replacement level pitch at this point.

That doesn’t mean that there’s an easy option for what to do with Tillman. Because of his off-speed stuff he can handle minor leaguer hitter pretty well. He doesn’t really have anything to learn in Triple-A at this point. But I think he’s pretty clearly the worst O’s starter once Matusz returns, and his inability to pitch deep into games more than very occasionally taxes the bullpen. If Zach Britton wasn’t pitching so well, I’d recommend he get sent down to get that extra year of team control (heck, I’d still recommend that, but there’s no way it happens). And Brad Bergesen similarly has little to learn in the minors.

So one of them is probably going to get sent to the pen. Given that Tillman has the higher ceiling (though it’s getting lower by the start) and has more developing to due, he probably needs the more consistent innings. That would mean he keeps his rotation spot. Really, I’d be with having Tillman and Bergesen both be the every-five-day pitcher, with Tillman getting the start and Bergy relieving him after 4-5 innings and finishing the game. That would (a) get both guys some innings (especially if Bergesen also pitches in game on what would be his throw day), (b) save the bullpen some by giving them an auto day off an extra 1-2 days a week, and (c) increase the pitchers’ effectiveness. Pitchers tend to perform worse going through the line-up the third and fourth time, so limiting how often batters see each guy should be a plus for each guy. There’s virtually no chance of that happening, but I don’t really see a good alternative.

Stats: ERA, FIP, xFIP, K/9 & BB/9, HR/FB, BABIP, PitchFX