In the wake of the Chris Tillman’s quality start on Sunday I thought it would be appropriate to examine the enigmatic Orioles’ youngster.
For those three of you who are unfamiliar, Tillman was acquired through the gift the keeps on giving: the 2008 Erik Bedard trade to the Mariners. Despite showcasing dominance at each level of the minor leagues, as of September 1st it appeared that Tillman had three major problems at the major league level : (1) an inability to strike out hitters (reflected in a poor K/9), (2) an inability to command his pitches (reflected in a poor BB/9) and (3) an inability to keep the ball in the park (reflected with a poor GB/FB ratio and a poor HR/9).
Well, aside from that, how did you enjoy the play Mrs. Lincoln?!?! Needless to say things looked bleak. However, since his September call up Tillman has had two solid starts. In the first he managed to go 5 and 1/3 innings yielding three earned runs, and in the second (Sunday’s start) he went 6 and 2/3 innings yielding just one hit and one earned run. Is Tillman beginning to turn things around at the MLB level or has he just gotten “lucky” across a ridiculous small sample size of 12 innings?
Before we dig into the numbers, I will point out I am not trying to predict if Tillman will become the stud pitcher we all assumed he would be. Instead, I am simply trying to explore if Tillman has begun to improve his MLB skills since the September call up.
First, lets look at Tillman’s inability to strike out major league hitters. In the 90 innings prior to the September call up Tillman has posted a K/9 of 5.1. K/9 represents the number of hitters a pitcher strikes out per 9 innings. His poor K/9 was due to a lack of swinging strikes from opposing hitters. Before the September call up Tillman coaxed swinging strikes from hitters on only 6.2% of his pitches. The major league average is between 8% and 9%. In his last two starts Tillman has posted a K/9 of 6.0 and is coaxing swinging strikes from hitters on 6.7% of his pitches. Both numbers are slightly better than his previous marks but not much so. Furthermore, 11 of the 13 swinging strikes Tillman has garnered in the last two starts were on pitches up in the zone. Of those 11, 9 of the pitches were fastballs. I don’t see any significant improvement or reason to be optimistic here. If he keeps throwing fastballs up in the zone major league hitters are going to swing. Sometimes they’ll miss but on plenty of other swings those pitches will end up Eutaw St.
Next, lets examine Tillman’s inability to command his stuff. Prior to September, Chris had a BB/9 of 3.7. In his two September starts he has a BB/9 of 6.75. BB/9 represents the number of hitters a pitcher walks per 9 innings. The MLB average BB/9 is between 3.1 and 3.2; a BB/9 of 3.7 is bad, one of 6.75 is atrocious. Prior to September Tillman was struggling with throwing first pitch strikes. He fell behind hitters 45.5% of the time, compared to the 42% MLB average on the first pitch. Since then things have remained about the same. To start out a plate appearance Tillman is falling behind hitters 45.8% of the time in September. His inability to throw first pitch strikes has resulted in hitter’s counts. The hitter’s counts force Tillman to throw his fastball for a strike, which was his worst pitch before September and has continued to be in September. Again, no improvement or reason for optimism.
Finally, lets look at Tillman’s ability to keep the ball in the park and induce ground balls. Prior to September, he was serving up gopher balls at a whopping HR/9 rate of 1.8. HR/9 represents the number of home runs a pitcher gives up per 9 innings. Tillman’s high HR/9 rate is probably due to some poor luck but is also due to being forced to throw his fastball for a strike. In his two starts in September, Chris has given up 2 HRs in 12 innings yielding a HR/9 of 1.5. While this is a marked improvement it is still above the league average ~1.05.
Before 2010 I doubted if Tillman would ever achieve an HR/9 below the league average due to his inability to get groundballs at both the major and minor league level. Prior to the last call up Chris had a GB/FB ratio of 0.90 over the 90 innings pitched in 2009 and in 2010. GB/FB measures how frequently a pitcher gets batters out on ground balls versus fly balls. However, in the two starts in September Tillman has improved that mark to a Zach Britton-esque mark of 1.85. While I don’t think Chris can maintain a 1.85 GB/FB, he has drastically improved this skill since the end of the 2009 season. Including the two September starts he has a GB/FB mark of 1.20 in 2010, which is the league average. If readers are looking for reasons to be optimistic about Tillman’s last two starts I believe his improved GB/FB is the skill that should be latched onto. However, despite the improvement in GB/FB I don’t see any other changes in Tillman. He is continuing to fall behind hitters, which forces him to throw his fastball for a strike. Unfortunately, those fastballs are usually up in the zone and hitters are missing the pitch at a below average rate. Furthermore, when they swing home runs often result. The two homeruns Tillman has given up in September both came on 4-seam fastballs. As this graph shows, one was slightly above belt high the other was mid thigh high. In summary, meet the new Chris Tillman same as the old Chris Tillman. And until he improves in K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 we won’t be fooled again.
Speical thanks to BSR for continuing to let me write, Joe Lefkowitz’s Pitch F/x tool which makes this type of analysis possible for anyone with internet access and David Golebiewsk, who wrote an excellent piece documenting Tillman’s struggles before September which served as a blueprint for this work.