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:
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Same approach to being set; opposite difference once set. The numbers again:
Time while set: 0.5 seconds
Time to home: 1.37 seconds
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.
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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