Tipping Pitches: Chris Tillman Surging

It’s understandable if you came into the season with Chris Tillman buried on your starting pitcher list. After back-to-back intriguing seasons in 2013-14, he ran all the back toward and even beyond his ominous FIP numbers with a 4.99 ERA in 173 innings. In those two solid seasons, he posted a 3.52 ERA, but was all the way up at a 4.22 FIP. An already-tenuous skillset sank further, yielding a 1.9 K:BB ratio and took Tillman off the radar in just about every league type.

On Tuesday night he dropped seven strong on the Yankees, shrinking his ERA to 2.81 and tying a career-high with nine strikeouts (7th ever, 2nd this year). This time around, there’s actually support for his numbers. He has a 2.64 FIP thanks in large part to a 26% strikeout rate and just 24 hits allowed in 32 innings. His 9% walk rate is a little high, but workable with those strikeout and hit rates for sure. His 11% swinging strike rate is far and away a career-high and supports the surge in punchouts.

What’s Tillman doing to draw such strong results? Let’s take a look at the three main areas that I (and most, I think) often look to first when a pitcher is showing a big change in performance, for better or worse.

VELOCITY

I’m fairly certain that velocity is the first check for everybody when seeing what’s up with a pitcher. Brooks has Tillman up over a full tick at 93.8 MPH – a career-best and his first time north of 93 on average since 2012. The cutter is the only other pitch where more velocity would help and while he is up, it’s negligible at just 0.6 MPH. The 87.4 MPH mark is second-best in his career behind the 87.5 he logged in 2013. His velocity increase is a tangible, positive change, but it alone certainly doesn’t explain this jump in performance.

I know this is the velocity section, but since we are focused on the fastball, I wanted to investigate his spin rate as well. The higher the rate, the more strikeouts; the lower the rate, the more groundballs. Baseball Savant only has data of the last two years, but we have seen a jump for Tillman. He’s up to 2323 RPM on average.

Looking at the pitchers with at least 100 fastballs thrown so far this year gives us a sample of 166 and Tillman slots 58th. The added spin is no doubt contributing to the surge in strikeouts off the fastball. For his career he has just a 15% strikeout rate off the fastball, only once over 18% prior to this year (22% in ’13) and so far this year’s he is at a career-high 23%.

LOCATION

Next, I looked at where he was throwing his pitches and again focused first on the fastball. In the 2016 SP Guide (now on sale!), I mentioned that Tillman needed to work the high fastball if he wanted to regain some of that 2013-14 success:

Tillman

Last year saw a sharp drop in fastballs up in the zone with more finding the middle of the zone, a dangerous area for fastballs. His rates of heaters up in the zone by year since 2013: 44%, 44%, 38%, and 43%. The focus back up in the zone has contributed to the jump in the walks, but it’s a small price to pay for the positive results beyond that:

Fastballs Up in the Zone
AVG K% BB%
2013 0.175 28% 9%
2014 0.214 19% 11%
2015 0.245 25% 13%
2016 0.133 32% 21%

Looking at his secondary stuff, he’s committed to burying it, though that’s no different from last year, but the results have been much better. In 2013-14, he put his secondary stuff in the lower third of the zone 44%. It spiked to 52% last year and has held there so far this year. OPS totals on secondary stuff in the lower third by year: .698, .694, .747, and .459. More importantly, he’s getting the strikeouts down there with a 28% rate, up from just 13% last year.

Fastballs up, everything else down. That’s the strategy right now and it’s working.

MIX

Honestly, I usually check pitch mix second, but I changed the order to discuss location before mix since it was also fastball-focused. Tillman has made some pitch mix changes that are no doubt a key driver in his early success. He’s relying on the fastball a lot less and it’s all going into his mid-to-high 80s cutter. His four-seamer/sinker usage is down to 54%, down from 65% the last two seasons. In fact, his heater usage has always been north of 60% so this is a stark difference so far. Changeup usage is up three percentage points and the curveball is up one.

The real difference is that cutter and its domination of righties, especially compared to last year. In 2015, his cutter allowed an .831 OPS with just an 11% strikeout rate. Righties saw 75% of his cutters and so the .832/11% figures they had carried the sample (lefties were at .767/13%, but as you see it didn’t move the needle). So far this year, the cutter is at .573/40% (!) in 25 plate appearances. Parsing the already small sample further, righties have just a .368 OPS with a 29% strikeout rate in 14 PA, while lefties have an .818 OPS, but a gaudy 55% strikeout rate in 11 PA.

CONCLUSION

Tillman might finally be having a true breakout season. FIP aside, he put up the results in 2013-14 and had back-to-back 2-WAR seasons, but it didn’t feel trustworthy going forward because of the skills and that’s where FIP can be useful. When it came crashing down at age-27 last year, it was hard to feel all that confident about him coming into this season, but even on the power of just six starts, I’m feeling good about what we’re seeing from Tillman.

There are tangible changes behind the spike in production and if he holds these gains, I feel comfortable expecting something like his 2014 ERA (3.34) or better, but with the skills to actually support it. One factor that is likely to push the ERA upward a bit from its current level is his home run rate. He has a career 1.2 HR/9 and 11% HR/FB rate and he’s at just 0.3 and 3% so far this year. Even if he is going to be better, he’s unlikely to keep those figures this low. The cutter and changeup have been the home run culprits in the past, allowing eight bombs total in each of the last two years and 11 in 2013, but he’s yet to allow a homer on either pitch so far this season.

If you decide to invest or already have Tillman, keep an eye on fastball location and the aforementioned home run count, specifically against righties. Righties clubbed 17 off of him last year en route to a .500 SLG (.418 and .385 in 2013-14), but they have just the one this year so far. He needs to work the fastball up and secondary stuff down to maintain this success. He has multiple pitches to get swings-and-misses which makes me confident that he will hold some of these strikeout gains (I’d project around 8-8.5 per nine rest of season), if not all of ‘em.





Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Owen S
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Owen S

So do you think Tillman is rosterable is a 12 team 5×5 roto with a 1400 IP cap? (Yahoo league)

Jackie T.
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Jackie T.

Or even shallower – I’m in a QS instead of Ws 10-teamer. Does he play there? I’m excellent in pitching already (Thor, VV, Salazar, Strasburg, Verlander, McCullers) but you can always use more.

Thinking of dropping Freddie Freeman (I have Ortiz and Byung-Ho Park, can’t play all three) or Verlander for him. What say you Paul?