We’re not even two full weeks into the 2016 season. I’d give the typical blanket small sample sizes warning, but instead I’d advise reading Mike Podhorzer’s piece from earlier in the week. I agree with the premise of doing nothing, but Mike discusses exceptions (injuries) and readers also brought up exceptions and reasons for making early-season moves in the comments. I routinely draft one to two players who are disabled-list eligible in my leagues so that that I can speculate on players who flash something intriguing in the season’s first few weeks. Chris Tillman is just the type of player I’m talking about. I’m writing this article in advance of his third start of the season Thursday night, so the PITCHf/x data and numbers are from his first two starts. As you’ve probably guessed, the PITCHf/x data is enticing.
Tillman’s first start of the year lasted just two innings due to a lengthy rain delay. Unfortunately, I don’t have Tillman’s ear or any insider sources with the O’s, so I have no idea if he was asked to cut it loose in anticipation of a rain-abbreviated turn. The righty played good ol’ fashion country hard ball in the two-inning turn throwing 15 four-seam fastball, two curves and a pair of cutters in that start, per Brooks Baseball, and his heater was cooking at an average velocity of 94.63 mph. Last year, his four-seam fastball averaged just 92.63 mph, and it hasn’t averaged north of 93 mph since 2012. The extra ticks helped him tally four whiffs on the four-seam fastball. Skepticism is totally understandable, but he was once again lighting up the radar gun in his second start.
On April 8th, Tillman pitched five innings allowing four hits, two walks and one earned run with five strikeouts against the Rays. His heater was still sizzling averaging 93.53 mph, and he used his sinker as well which averaged 93.36 mph. Through two starts, Tillman’s four-seam fastball has generated 11 empty swings on 50 thrown and is up 1.23 mph on average from last year, and his sinker’s velocity is up 1.24 mph this year and has two whiffs on 15 thrown. The velocity alone is noteworthy, and the good news is that it doesn’t appear to be the result of a hot gun at Camden Yards in his first two turns. If anything, the gun might be a bit cold in Baltimore, according to the info at Brooks Baseball.
The extra oomph on the heater isn’t the only thing to like in the 27-year-old’s PITCHf/x profile, either. Tillman’s changeup has netted three whiffs on 15 thrown, and all of the changeups that have been put in play have been worm burners. The righty’s curve hasn’t missed a single bat on the dozen he’s thrown, but only two cuts have been taken against the pitch and resulted in a pair of foul balls. The veteran pitcher’s repertoire is rounded out by a cutter he’s throwing more frequently out the chute with an 11.54% usage rate. It has generated a pair of empty swings on 12 thrown. Overall, Tillman has 18 whiffs on 104 pitches thrown (17.3% whiff rate), and his swinging strike rate sits at 15.2% through two turns (10.4% league average). His total pitch count is the equivalent of one full, good start, so don’t go too crazy. That said, in the three years prior to Tillman’s clunker 2015 campaign, he earned — with the aid of good luck, according to his ERA estimators — a 3.42 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 82 starts spanning 499.2 innings. There are worse players to speculate on than a pitcher who’s had previous success in his mid-20s and was a highly-touted prospect.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.