In nine starts, Chris Tillman has already reached the halfway point of last season’s 11-win total. The ace of the Baltimore Orioles staff is 6-1 with a 2.61 ERA, a notable beginning to a resurgent campaign.
Tillman struggled down the stretch last season as the Orioles failed to reach the postseason, compiling an 11-11 record and 4.99 ERA. But in 2016, the right-hander is trending in the right direction — velocity has returned to form, he’s hitting his spots, and as a result, his strikeout numbers have risen.
It all starts with his pitch location.
Throughout his career, Tillman has focused on locating in the upper, inside part of the zone. In fact, Tillman has heavily favored this area (at least 20 percent of the time) dating back to 2011. As a result, he creates a lot of jam shots off the bat handle.
Yet in previous years, the veteran has been outmatched when leaving pitches letter high, allowing 33 home runs in 2013, 21 in 2014 and 20 last season. Currently, though, Tillman has given up just two deep flies as the exit velocity on pitches in on the hands has fallen.
This season, Tillman has seen a steady decline in exit velocity over the course of each start. Since April 14, a day in which he gave up a season-high six runs against the Rangers, Tillman’s average exit velocity against has dropped below the league average of 86-88 mph.
On the flip side, his pitch velocity has made slow, yet significant strides this year. Tillman’s four-seam fastball has more life on it in 2016 — a 91.3 mph career average using the pitch has improved to 93.7. In addition, his cutter is up two mph to averaging 87 mph (a career-best).
The cutter isn’t used as a primary out pitch for Tillman, but he’s throwing it much more than in previous seasons. Tillman has dialed it up 125 times this season compared to 209 in 2015, an eight percent increase in usage from year-to-year. It has proven to be a reliable option, with whiff percentages rising from nine percent to 20 percent, and opposing hitters are batting just .163 against it with 17 strikeouts.
Strikeouts, in general, have become more common for Tillman. His strikeouts-per-nine rate is currently resting at 9.23 — easily a career high — with a nine percent increase in sitting down batters on strikes compared to a year ago.
One concern for Tillman which remains in question is starting strong. It’s been a thorn in his side since his big league tenure began, and six of his 15 runs allowed this season have occurred in the first inning.
Tillman’s fly ball percentage is up at 40.5 percent, but in his most recent start against Seattle, eight of his 19 outs recorded were on groundballs. Baltimore’s ace may not be viewed as a top of the line starting pitcher from a league-wide stance, but for an Orioles team who entered a new year with question marks surrounding their rotation, Tillman has ascended to the forefront.