How Chris Tillman Keeps Runners From Running

Chris Tillman‘s 2014 has a pretty great storyline. Approaching the end of July, Tillman had an average ERA and below-average peripherals, with 51 walks to go with 83 strikeouts. That’s not at all what the Orioles were looking for, and then all of a sudden Tillman turned his year around. Over the dozen starts he had remaining, he allowed 23 runs, with 15 walks and 67 strikeouts. Last week, Tillman was reasonably effective against the Tigers, with six whiffs in five innings. People who look at the Orioles’ rotation don’t see an ace, but Tillman’s the closest they’ve got, and he’s pitched at that level for a couple of months.

So, Tillman’s had a great second half of the year, just like the whole team around him has, and that’s one thing you could talk about. But in October, people love to focus on the matchups, and Tillman’s about to go up against the Royals, who made a name for themselves in the Wild Card game by running all over the place. The perception of the Royals, now, is that they’ll run you to death if you give them the chance. And yet, Chris Tillman doesn’t give runners chances. This’ll be a fascinating matchup for a number of reasons.

How much would you like to know? This season, attempted base-stealers were 1-for-4 with Tillman on the mound. Tillman, incidentally, is right-handed, and in case you’re wondering about that one successful steal, here it is in all of its glory:

TillmanSB

It was a busted hit-and-run where the hitter basically stood directly in the catcher’s way as he tried to throw to second. With an even halfway accurate throw, the runner would’ve been out, so this deserves a big ol’ asterisk. It wasn’t a straight steal attempt, and the runner was safe only because the catcher had trouble throwing from behind another person.

And last year? Last year, attempted base-stealers were 1-for-9 with Tillman on the mound. Last year, Tillman was also right-handed. Here are Tillman’s last four years, and the rate at which runners tried to steal given the opportunity.

2011: 6.7% attempts
2012: 5.6%
2013: 3.2%
2014: 1.3%

And Tillman, in turn, has reduced his pickoff attempts. His pickoff attempt rate this year was a third what it was in 2011, not because Tillman doesn’t have a good pickoff, but because runners just aren’t so aggressive with their leads against him anymore. He knows they’re not likely to try.

The pickoff — it’s a good pickoff.

TillmanPO

TillmanPO2

In the first one, you see an attempt before Tillman even comes set. In the second one, you see an attempt as he’s coming set. Runners know that pickoff is there.

Tillman didn’t have the lowest steal rate in 2014, even among righties. There was just one attempt against Doug Fister, and it was unsuccessful. There were two attempts against Yordano Ventura, and one of them was successful. There were two attempts against Michael Wacha and four against Lance Lynn, in large part probably a function of Yadier Molina. But this isn’t just a one-year thing for Tillman, and he’s clearly extreme even if he might not be the most extreme. So how does Tillman do it, beyond just being able to throw pretty quickly to first base?

Ben Lindbergh wrote well about Ventura almost exactly a month ago. Runners don’t try to steal against Ventura, and though some of that is his velocity and some of that is the presence of Salvador Perez, mostly it’s because Ventura is quicker to home plate than any other pitcher. The Orioles want all their pitchers to be no slower than 1.3 seconds to home, which is a pretty quick time. Ventura measures at 1.1 seconds, and that makes for almost impossible math for any would-be runner.

Tillman doesn’t have a Salvador Perez. In fact, he commonly throws to Nick Hundley, who isn’t a great defensive backstop. Tillman also doesn’t have Ventura’s velocity, not that velocity plays a huge role in steal success. And Tillman isn’t as quick to the plate as Ventura is, because nobody is, as I already mentioned. But for one thing, there’s that pickoff. For another thing, Tillman isn’t slow. And for a third thing, Tillman’s got his own quirks to combat any kind of running game that might exist.

Why don’t we just look at one example, say, from when Tillman faced the Royals earlier in the season? Below, Tillman pitching in a close game with Alcides Escobar on first base. Escobar stole 31 bases this year. Last year, he stole 22 in 22 tries. Escobar likes to run, and against Tillman, he didn’t do anything. Let’s try to figure out why.

TillmanEscobar (1)

You see that? You see the way that Tillman comes set? It’s subtle, until you notice it, and then you can’t not notice it. He puts his hand in his glove up at his chest, then he very slowly lowers his hands to his belt while his left foot taps in front of him. From first base, it looks like Tillman’s in constant motion, until he comes set and steady. And then that’s another thing. I’ll track some numbers below the .gifs.

Time while set: 1.3 seconds
Time to home: 1.23 seconds

TillmanEscobar (2)

Same quirk with the glove and left foot. Tillman does that every time. But pay close attention to the numbers below.

Time while set: 2.0 seconds
Time to home: 1.26 seconds

Tillman held the ball a little longer than he did the first time. Plenty of pitchers are told to do this, to vary their looks, but few do it as well or as consistently as Tillman does.

TillmanEscobar (3)

Same approach to being set; opposite difference once set. The numbers again:

Time while set: 0.5 seconds
Time to home: 1.37 seconds

TillmanEscobar (4)

And here we have a pickoff attempt. Not only is it a quick and accurate attempt, but it’s very difficult to pick up on specifically because of what Tillman does with his foot and his hands. The runner is trying to read the pitcher’s movements, and here, Tillman was already in motion before throwing over. His hands were already moving, and his foot was already bouncing, and that gives him an incremental timing advantage with his throw to first because the runner might be that much slower to react. And Tillman doesn’t always try to pick a guy off at this point in his motion. Refer back to the two attempts shown above — he also throws over before coming set, and as he’s coming set. He’s quick enough to throw over whenever he wants, which makes him very unpredictable, which makes him very hard to read if you’re trying to move up 90 feet. Running is simply about detecting a pattern. Tillman keeps himself pretty random.

TillmanEscobar (5)

Here you really get to see that left foot at work. If I’m going to be honest with you, I didn’t know this was even allowed. And I’ve watched Chris Tillman before. I’ve just never watched this part of his game very closely. I guess the Royals are causing me to examine the anatomy of steals and non-steals closer than I ever have. Escobar doesn’t even try anything. Dyson singled, but that’s beside the point. Escobar couldn’t read Tillman very well, so he didn’t try to steal, and he didn’t get a running start on the knock. So the single just moved him from first to second, the same as it would’ve done for Billy Butler.

Time while set: 2.1 seconds
Time to home: 1.30 seconds

Tillman doesn’t have Ventura’s explosive delivery that allows him to be so quick to home. But he’s still faster than average, and he blends that speed with a terrific pickoff move, deception, and varied timing. Many pitchers are told to vary their timing, but the numbers indicate that Tillman’s better than almost everyone at it, and it doesn’t seem to cost him anything in terms of performance with men on. You can see in the case with Escobar above, Tillman was set for as little as half a second, and for as much as more than two seconds. It gives him a tiny little edge when it comes to plays decided by tiny little differences. Some runners, surely, could steal against Tillman, but they’ve pretty much all just decided it’s not worth the risk.

So if the Royals face Tillman twice, it’ll be fascinating to see how aggressive they are. Buck Showalter says the goal is to keep guys off base in the first place, but Tillman might at least be able to keep the runners he does allow from going anywhere. And if you look at the Royals’ splits, they seem to prefer running later anyway, presumably because they get to see relievers and get to use pinch-runners:

Innings 1-3: 42 steals (7th in MLB)
Innings 4-6: 44 steals (2nd)
Innings 7-9: 62 (1st)

With Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore on the bench, the Royals can try to select their own running opportunities, but when Chris Tillman is on the mound, those opportunities might not really exist. Which means, when Chris Tillman is on the mound, the Royals might have to beat him with their bats, and that’s where the Royals are weakest. It’s an awful small thing, but it can be such a big thing, as the Royals have demonstrated, and the beauty is in the details anyhow.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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August Fagerstrom
Editor
Member
1 year 7 months ago

Trevor Bauer does the foot thing too.

Also, this is awesome.

Jack
Guest
Jack
1 year 7 months ago

Two Orioles posts from Sullivan in a single day! Is it Christmas already?

Schuxu
Guest
Schuxu
1 year 7 months ago

Either that or playoff time with only 4 teams left.

awannabegeek
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awannabegeek
1 year 7 months ago

Stuff like this is why I as an Orioles fan that has no fondness or hatred for Seattle Mariners would read Lookout Landing and now Fangraphs

“…Last year, Tillman was also right-handed”
-Jeff Sullivan, 2014

Excellent analysis aside, I could read Jeff write about just about anything…

hookstrapped
Guest
1 year 7 months ago

Same here.

I’ve always noticed the foot thing and I’ve known that people don’t steal off of him, but I never put the two together. I mean, the foot thing bothers me watching — never thought that it bothers the runner on first.

tz
Guest
tz
1 year 7 months ago

That whole fidgety way of coming to the set reminds me a lot of this guy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=md2k4NdOPmA

Helped him do ok against the steal (career 40% CS rate) even without being quick to home like Tillman.

Orsulakfan
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Orsulakfan
1 year 7 months ago

All of the Orioles starters are pretty good with this. I actually hope the Royals try to run against our starters, because I think we’ll get some free outs that way. O’s relievers, I think, less so. The late-inning steal attempt stats are pretty interesting… that will be something to watch when Baltimore’s bullpen comes in.

Royal's Fan
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Royal's Fan
1 year 7 months ago

So, the fourth inning, then?

Ned Yost
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Ned Yost
1 year 7 months ago

I thought Baltimore left their fourth inning guy off the roster

Orsulakfan
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Orsulakfan
1 year 7 months ago

I am not sure whether this is some sort of comment on Showalter’s bullpen usage or if it reflects some belief that the Royals will rock Baltimore’s starting pitching. If it is the latter then I would say that is misplaced enthusiasm.

Bill
Guest
Bill
1 year 7 months ago

I have faith in Joseph and of course in Mr. Wieters, but less so in Hundley. Tillman will keep them close, but if they don’t get picked off, Hundley can be run on. Although, Hundley is Tillman’s personal catcher and he still hasn’t been run on, so I’m probably wrong.

Ruben Amaro Jr.
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Ruben Amaro Jr.
1 year 7 months ago

The count is 3-2 in the first video. Pretty sure that is not a hit and run.

Schuxu
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Schuxu
1 year 7 months ago

What else would it be with 0 outs?

Brooks
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Brooks
1 year 7 months ago

It’s a run and hit. The hitter has the option of taking the pitch, an option he doesn’t have on a true hit and run.

Philip
Guest
Philip
1 year 7 months ago

Great write.
Would that every article were so well written. Pundits generally are stupid- or think we’re stupid- and parrot each other’s platitudes.
This was good.
Would really enjoy an article about Caleb Joseph against the Royal runners.
That’s a big part of the upcoming series.

Eephus
Guest
Eephus
1 year 7 months ago

I appreciate the article, but his speed to the plate is a direct result of using the slide step. Add the timing and you make a great runner holder but the timing and foot tap is maybe 25% of it.

Federico
Guest
Federico
1 year 7 months ago

Being a pitcher, although playing low-level baseball in Italy, I have been teached three different pickoff moves, since (at least so they told me) as long as your hands are not set, you can do -almost- what you want with your leading foot. So I think that moving your hands as slowly as Tillman does has the double effect of allowing to modulate the set-up time at will in order to keep the runner honest and, at the same time, it conceals the beginning of the pickoff move a bit more.

Schuxu
Guest
Schuxu
1 year 7 months ago

What is the time one has to be set in order not to quick pitch. Isn’t 0,5 seconds as in the 1-1 pitch not too short?

bluestraggler
Member
Member
1 year 7 months ago

Max Scherzer also does a longer set to throw off runners’ timing. Anecdotally it seems to help (even though it also seems like he’s a bit slower to the plate). Just disrupting running timing feels like an easy adjustment, not sure why we don’t see more pitchers try it.

jimfetterolf
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jimfetterolf
1 year 7 months ago

Any idea of the catcher pop times? Those plus delivery times give the numbers the 1st base coach is tracking.

FIP'n good
Guest
FIP'n good
1 year 7 months ago

Cool article!

AP
Guest
AP
1 year 7 months ago

Stunning piece. Loved it, thanks.

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