Chris Tillman Changes Not At All and Improves

It’s surprising Chris Tillman hasn’t developed into a superstar since he was part of Bill Bavasi’s talent dump to the Baltimore Orioles back in 2008 for one Erik Bedard. But after he posted a tidy little 2.93 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in limited action in 2012, he started to grace some sleeper pick lists headed into 2013.

Most reasonable prognosticators scoffed, of course — they said, “look at his BABIP,” and “look at his FIP!” and “regression alert!” Sure as eggs is eggs, he regressed:

2012 2.93 4.25 1.05 0.221
2013 3.71 4.42 1.22 0.269

Now, there’s not a whole lot wrong with a 3.71 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP, not to mention a pretty decent 21% strikeout rate and 16 wins. This is in large part why he’s ranked 31st in the end-of-season-Zach-Sanders-MENSA-application-rankings, sharing space with guys like Kris Medlen, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Justin Masterson. Not bad company.

Most projection systems seem to believe that Chris Tillman is going to turn into a little worse version of his 2013 self with a an ERA over four and a WHIP up over 1.30. Essentially, they’re saying he’s a fringey kind of fantasy starter in mixed league standard formats, and you ought to aim higher. But let’s zoom in just a little.

If you’re among those that liked what you saw out of Tillman in 2013, you probably picked him up mid-season. Because in the second half, Tillman was actually quite good. Over his last 94+ innings pitched, Tillman posted a 3.42 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 24% strikeout rate and 7.2% walk rate — holding opposing hitters to just a .212/.271/.408 slash line. Now that kind of pitcher ought to interest you.

Did anything change? You sort of have to squint to see it, but maybe. His pitch usage changed a little bit, with more reliance on his change and less on his cutter from first to second half – although it was marginal change. But in the second half, he started to perhaps trust his stuff a little more (I’m speculating) as his walk rate dipped and he started to throw far more strikes:


Across three of his four major offerings, the rate at which he was peppering the zone increased fairly significantly. On his fourseam fastball, the increase is actually kind of lost in the scale of the chart. In the second half, he threw it over 62% of the time, so a 7% increase in throwing strikes is pretty notable.

There’s throwing strikes and then there’s throwing strikes and making batters miss. It makes sense that if more balls are in the zone, batters might swing more — and of course, the idea would be that you wouldn’t get torched for throwing more in the zone. The two following charts document the swing percentages on each offering, and then subsequently the whiff rate on each.



This is where things get kind of interesting for me. So Tillman actually used his change 20% vs. LHB and 10% vs. RHB as the first pitch, and was throwing it more for strikes, and yet he was still using his fourseam fastball over 60% of the time in two strike counts, and his whiff rate almost doubled.

His fourseam fastball wasn’t appreciably faster in the second half (about a quarter mile per hour), but actually picked up almost an inch of vertical movement and about a half inch of horizontal movement. It’s a little confounding. His release points from first half to second half don’t really change much at all and yet the pitch was demonstrably different not only in character but results.

The only last point to be made is the ultimate abandonment of his cutter. He started out using it about 8-9% of the time and opposing hitters were feasting on it, and by September, he was using it sparingly — and even when he did, you can see that he was missing more bats with it.

Tillman represents kind of a dilemma for me in re-draft leagues. He’s probably the “ace” of the Baltimore Orioles, which y’know, super. He projects as a back-end fantasy starter in standard formats. But he inexplicably improved in the second half, and improved rather dramatically, despite not really making any notable changes save for throwing more strikes. If he went out and put up a full season replicating his second half of 2013, we’ll all say we should have seen it coming. And yet, if he goes out and turns into some mash-up of the decent but not thrilling version of himself, nobody would be surprised either. Considering his projections, it’s likely he won’t come at much of a cost, so for my money, he’s definitely worth a flier in almost any format. If he comes out in April and starts looking like the second half version of himself from 2013, you could have a real bargain on your hands.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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Another interesting thing about Tillman’s second half is that PitchF/X started classifying his curve as a knuckle curve which it had never done before. I dono whether that has something to do with a change in Tillman or the classification system, but it could support the idea that he made some sort of change during the season.