Chris Tillman Finally Arrives?

The trade that sent Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners is famous for bringing Adam Jones to Camden Yards. Jones wasn’t the only big talent included in the infamous deal, though — Chris Tillman, a 6’5″ right-handed pitcher and the Mariners’ second round pick in 2006 was considered at at time to be an ace in the making. Topping out as the 22nd-best prospect in the game according to Baseball America in 2009, Tillman was billed as a future staple of the Orioles’ pitching staff.

But Tillman’s tires spun in the major leagues. In 36 starts over the past three seasons, Tillman managed just a 5.58 ERA and a 5.31 FIP. Tillman made his 2012 debut Wednesday night in Seattle, and as the east coast launched Fourth of July fireworks, Tillman torched the Mariners. His final line: 8.1 innings, two unearned runs, two hits allowed, seven strikeouts, and two walks.

Tillman has had successful starts before — July 10th, 2010, October 1st, 2010 against Detroit, and April 2nd, 2011 all stand out.

But neither has the full-scale dominance Wednesday night’s start had. It was his longest outing of the group, it tied the October 2010 outing for best K/BB ratio, and it featured the least fly balls. The 80 game score was a career high by six points.

And maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Tillman appeared to figure something out in Triple-A this year, striking out over a batter per inning again after dropping to under 7.0 per nine innings in 2010 and 2011. According to StatCorner, he drew 11.4% swinging strikes after marks below 10% in both 2010 and 2011.

Just a look at the radar gun readings shows what happened: Tillman’s fastball is back. He touched 97.2 MPH in the ninth inning — twice — after averaging just 89.5 MPH on his fastball last season. Tillman averaged 95.0 MPH on the fastball Wednesday, and every pitch saw an uptick in velocity — the cutter up to 93.0 from 84.2, the curve up to 77.4 from 75.2, the changeup up to 83.2 from 78.7 (a massive 12 MPH difference from the fastball).

Tillman drew 15 whiffs in his 125 pitches, a 12.0% rate. His past three years have been defined by constant contact — no MLB season over 7.0% swinging strikes. A pitch-to-contact Chris Tillman is not the one that was drafted in the second round nor the one the Orioles angled for in the Erik Bedard trade. That was the Chris Tillman that throws in the mid-90s, not the high-80s.

Wednesday night was only one start, and it was one start against the Mariners at SafeCo Field at that. But the stuff and results Tillman showed — particularly the stuff — show a clear step above everything he’s done in the major leagues the past few years. With this stuff, Tillman should be a legitimately solid pitcher at the major league level and a huge asset for the Orioles as they compete for 2012 and beyond.

Update: Tillman was sent back to Double-A following the start, but just to stay on normal rest over the All-Star break — he’ll be back in 10 days for another start.

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