The 2018 Major League Baseball season is not even 20 days old, but the hope surrounding the Baltimore Orioles has already seemed to dissipate. This is largely due to their 5-11 start to the season, a -35 run differential (worst in the American League, tied for second-worst in MLB with the tanking Miami Marlins) and all too-familiar, inconsistent starting pitching.
At the forefront of these struggles is former Orioles ace Chris Tillman. Since there was no game on Monday, I wanted to the time to step back and reflect on just how much Tilly has fallen off over the past two seasons. It’s really quite remarkable to see just how much things have changed.
Let’s take a trip back in time to the middle of August 2016. The Orioles are in the midst of a playoff chase, and Chris Tillman, believe it or not, was in the running for the American League Cy Young Award. Before his final start in the month, Tillman had logged 149.6 innings, while giving up just 58 runs. That’s a 3.48 ERA, a full run less than his career ERA. He was dominant, and he was pitching the Orioles deep into games and higher in the standings.
You may be asking, “why pick this specific start out?” Well, that’s because it’s where it all started going downhill. In Tillman’s next appearance, he labored through two innings against the Oakland Athletics on August 20, 2016. The Orioles then placed him on the 15-day disabled list soon after. This seemed to be the first time that Tillman had shown signs of his lingering shoulder issue that has truly derailed one of the more successful careers in recent Orioles history.
While Tillman was able to battle through the shoulder injury to close out the ’16 campaign, he failed to throw more than 6 IP in his four September starts, which he was doing with relative consistency earlier in that same season. He gutted out 4.1 gritty innings against Toronto in the Wild Card game, but, unfortunately, we all know how that one turned out. Tillman, again, was unable to pitch the Orioles late into the ballgame, and the bullpen was asked to do too much.
A few months later, in December of 2016, Tillman received a plasma-shot to that right shoulder. It was clear that he still wasn’t right following that late-August injury. He eventually would go on to miss all of spring training with that same injury, and it seemed as if he was playing catch-up all season after being sidelined for the entire month of April. This led to the worst statistical season of Tillman’s career. And to make matters worse, 2017 was a contract year for the right-hander.
With seemingly nowhere to go, Tillman returned to the Orioles on a one-year, incentive based contract in hopes of returning to pre-2017 form.
That hasn’t exactly gone to plan…
Tillman’s average fastball velocity is down significantly the last two seasons. According to Fangraphs, Tillman’s fastball was clocked at an average of 92.9 mph in 2016, 91.3 in 2017, and in his first three starts in 2018, that number has fallen to 89.43. That most recent statistic, according to MLB.com, is nearly 3.5 mph slower than the MLB average fastball velocity.
While velocity isn’t everything, it’s a telling sign that something isn’t physically right. Tillman is showing signs of slowing down much to that of an aging pitcher late in their career, much less a man who just turned 30 earlier this week.
Tillman’s consecutive starts without a win climbed to 21 on Friday night, and Orioles fans seem to cringe every time he toes the rubber.
i appreciate everything Chris Tillman has done for this team but his time is coming to an end here and this is just sad to watch.
— Connor Guercio (@connor_guercio) April 13, 2018
It will be extremely interesting to see how Buck Showalter handles the Chris Tillman situation as the rest of this season unfolds. Chris is a player that has meant so much to this organization since they acquired him as apart of the infamous Erik Bedard trade in 2008, along with Orioles’ centerfielder Adam Jones, but it seems as if he just can’t get the job done anymore. Opposing batters are hitting nearly .350 against him the last two seasons.
While Tillman continues to spin his wheels at the major league level, a few of the youngsters in the Orioles’ minor league system have impressed early on this season. Similar to the Manny Machado situation, I believe the Orioles record will dictate how they handle Tillman. If the O’s are in a full sell-mode around the trade deadline, I would not be surprised to see guys like Hunter Harvey, Alex Wells, Keegan Akin and Cody Sedlock to get some opportunities to start at Camden Yards in place of Tillman.
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