Not Knowing What to Make of Chris Tillman

Usually all topics for posts come to me while in that hazy state between sleep and not sleep. On many an occasion an idea has snapped me out of that haze and sent me reaching for my phone in order to email the idea to myself so it can be remembered in the morning. But with football season in full swing, most ideas from the haze involve an oddly shaped brown ball right now. With my inbox devoid of any baseball ideas, it was time to scour random groupings of stats hoping something would stick out.

The first hopeful source of inspiration was my recently updated “contact management” list where each pitcher’s OPS allowed on only batted balls is calculated relative to league average (sOPS+). After sorting the list to display the starters with the most plate appearances against in an effort to make sample size less significant, Chris Tillman was the first pitcher who has allowed a lot of balls in play to have an sOPS+ on batted balls that was quite a bit away from average. With 100 being league average, Tillman’s sOPS+ on batted balls is 77. That makes him a top 15 starter in that category among qualified starters.

That alone was not enough to warrant several hundred words on Tillman. But when taking a look at pitchers who have been much better the third time through the lineup this year, Tillman’s name appeared again. Tillman’s sOPS+ the first time through the lineup (not just on batted balls) is 120. The second time through it is 93. But the third time through it’s a ridiculous 41. For clarity’s sake, that’s 59% better than league average and the third best mark in the league behind only Garrett Richards and Felix Hernandez.

These two facts about Tillman’s season seem at odds. On one hand, Tillman’s success the third time through the lineup this season is likely fluky. It’s a small sample size as Tillman has only faced 218 hitters for a third time in a game this season. And research suggests a pitcher’s “times through the order” history has no predictive value. But the fact that Tillman is joined by Richards and Hernandez at the top of the list is very strange given that those two also join Tillman in the top 15 for sOPS+ on batted balls.

If the ability to limit hard contact can help a starter avoid the typical pattern of worsening each time through the lineup, Tillman might be able to mitigate some of the regression that you would think is in order when he has less success the third time through the order. Because Tillman’s ability to limit damage on balls in play does appear to be legit. Over the last three years he has thrown 475 innings, and his ERA is 68 points lower than his xFIP. Guys that can induce more weak contact tend to see this positive difference between ERA and the ERA estimators. Johnny Cueto is the ultimate example of this.

But, after a quick test, there does not appear to be a strong enough correlation between a sOPS+ on batted balls and sOPS+ the third time through the lineup. As a result, we should probably expect Tillman’s ERA to trend toward where it was in 2013 unless he repeats his luck. Or unless he improves in another area like striking out mare batters. But that’s another other topic for another time.

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When you watch Tillman pitch, you see that he struggles with his command early in the game, especially his curve ball. Sometimes, this means he gets pounded early, and so he doesn’t face guys for a third time. More often, he finds his command in the 3rd inning or so, and then he’s pretty tough, but he’s already built up a pitch count so he usually goes through 5-7 innings.

Brad Johnson

This touches on my questions – could this data just be capturing days he’s on versus days he’s not. Maybe he doesn’t get the third time through the order as often when he’s really slogging.