The real cause of Chris Tillman’s struggles

The numbers this season for Baltimore Orioles’ right-hander Chris Tillman are unsightly at best, ugly at worst. Tillman was handed the ball on Opening Day this year, and for good reason. Over the prior three seasons, he had pitched to a 38-16 record. Tillman was as close to an ace as the Orioles had, and he did not disappoint on Opening Day, allowing only one earned run in 6.2 innings to defeat the Tampa Bay Rays.

That Opening Day start was followed up by a dud against the Toronto Blue Jays — 2.2 IP, seven hits, seven earned, three walks and two home runs allowed. The baseball scheduling gods have not been kind to Tillman, forcing him to make another three starts against the Blue Jays. The result? In those four starts, Tillman has allowed 25 earned runs in 15.0 innings, good for a 15.00 ERA. The Blue Jays have hit six home runs against Tillman, and are batting .391 against him.

The Blue Jays have hit Tillman hard throughout his career. Tillman throws a high, rising fastball that generates a significant amount of fly ball outs. A team that can mash like Toronto, however, turns those fly balls into extra base hits more frequently than the rest of the league. Against the rest of the league this season, Tillman has a respectable 3.49 ERA.

That fact aside, there is still some reason for the Orioles to be concerned about Chris Tillman’s performance, especially when deciding whether or not to offer him a sizable extension. Tillman has walked 36 this season in 72.1 innings pitched, good for a 4.08 BB/9, a career-high. He is striking out a career-low 6.35 per nine, and is averaging over 17 pitches per inning. There have already been three instances this season where Tillman failed to reach the sixth inning while throwing over 100 pitches despite being handed a lead.

Last night’s start against the Cleveland Indians, in a game in which Tillman was handed an 8-0 lead, looked destined to be one of these types of games. It took over 80 pitches for Tillman to get through the first four innings, but he was able to settle himself, and left the game after completing seven innings and throwing 110 pitches, 70 for strikes. On the year, Tillman has thrown 61.3% of his pitches for strikes, a slight decline from the 63.1% he threw a year ago. That’s a difference of roughly two strikes per start, not a significant number.

There’s really only one thing holding Tillman back this year, and it is the same thing that had the statheads projecting a massive regression in his performance for years. Chris Tillman does not have a strikeout pitch. His arsenal simply does not include a true swing-and-miss type pitch. He must pitch to contact and force hitters to put the ball in play. Tillman mostly dodged bullets from 2012 to 2014, with a BABip well below the league average. This season, that figure is .307, right in line with the rest of the league. That number is inflated a little bit by Toronto, but it appears that overall, Tillman is done beating leaguewide trends.

To reinforce the fact that Tillman does not have an effective strikeout pitch, consider the following: hitters have swung and missed at only 4.94% of his changeups this year, and only 3.33% of his curveballs. His curveball sweeps across the plate rather gradually, and does not have a sharp break. This loping, slow break makes it very easy for hitters to pick up early out of his hand and pass on it if it is a ball. On the flip side, over 20% of his fastballs have been fouled off. Tillman throws a rising fastball, which is easier for hitters to foul off than a more typical sinking or tailing fastball. While Tillman does frequently get ahead in the count — over 50% of plate appearances against him have gone 0-1 or ended after the first pitch — he is not able to end counts quickly due to the fact that his offerings are easy enough for professional hitters to foul off. He has gone to 52 full counts this year, over three a game. It’s not because he struggles to get ahead early in the count, but rather because at bats that start out 0-2 or 1-2 drag on due to an inability to finish hitters off. Perhaps the most glaring evidence that supports this fact is the .261 average Tillman has allowed after an 0-2 count, roughly 100 points above the league average. As 0-2 counts turn into 2-2 and 3-2 counts thanks to foul balls, the chances Tillman allows a hit are naturally going to increase.

This begs the question, is there really anything Tillman can do to reverse this trend over the rest of the season? Starts against Toronto aside, he has not been hit extremely hard this season, just inefficient. What is driving the lowered swing-and-miss rate on his curve and changeup is the fact that he is just not throwing them for strikes frequently enough this year. His changeup has been called a ball 46.9% of the time this year, and the curve 54.8% of the time. These pitches just do not have enough movement or deception to entice hitters to swing when they are not near the strike zone. It’s difficult to say whether or not the back issue that Tillman struggled with in the month of May has continued to plague him. He skipped a start between May 12 and May 21, and had likely been dealing with it on and off the entire month. If the injury affected his ability to bend and finish his breaking pitches, that may reveal a reason for his struggles.

The Orioles are playing with fire if they think Chris Tillman can rebound to the levels of his 2014 performance. The numbers don’t lie, and without a real ability to strike hitters out or limit fly balls, he should pitch closer to his 4.54 FIP than the 3.34 ERA he posted last year. That being said, he is much better than a 5.67 ERA would lead you to believe. There are still positives to take away from Tillman’s performance this year. He must get back to locating his secondary pitches more effectively, however, for nights like last night to become more of the norm. Everything starts with the fastball for Tillman, but he does not throw hard enough or with enough movement to rely on it. Without better results from his changeup and curveball, hitters will continue having long at bats against Tillman, and his effectiveness will be limited. This is a correctable issue, and Tillman must work on it to return to the form that earned him the Opening Day nod this year.

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