Chris Tillman: Sleeper

Chris Tillman is going to be a very popular pick at the end of most drafts this season. Every year, there are a couple of guys that get touted all offseason, causing other owners to make a fuss when a team finally drafts them. In my experiences so far, Tillman is one of those guys. In an experts draft I participated in, Tillman’s selection caused the most “nice pick” messages from other owners. And in the RotoGraphs early mock, at least two other league members told me they liked Tillman where I took him. The love that Tillman has received already is going to make him a sleeper that virtually every owner knows about going into your draft. The fact that he had a 2.93 ERA is going to attract even the most basic fantasy owners. While he might not turn into a superstar this season, Tillman deserves the sleeper hype.

Before we even look at the numbers, it’s important to note that Tillman is a former top-prospect. He made Baseball America’s top 100 list in both 2008 and 2009, topping out as the 22 best prospect in baseball before the 2009 season. When I’m looking for breakout players, I always look for former prospects. If they’ve proven to be dominant at one point in their career, I figure there’s always at least a chance they can recapture that magic.

One of the biggest reasons for Tillman’s struggles early in his career was his velocity. Tillman was known for routinely hitting 94 mph in the minors, but saw his velocity begin to decline once he reached the majors. During his rookie year, his fastball averaged 92.0 mph. By 2011, Tillman was only hitting 89.3 mph with the pitch. Things rebounded last year, with Tillman averaging 92.3 mph with the pitch, the fastest he’s thrown in his major league career.

The added velocity helped quite a bit. Tillman’s SwStr% was up on every single one of his pitches. Contact rates against all of his pitched plummeted, as well. Both his slider and curveball turned into useful weapons last year, the first time that’s happened in his career. Tillman added the slider to his repertoire in 2011, but appeared to finally get some use out of it last year. His curve has always been a part of his arsenal, but didn’t turn into an effective pitch until last season. Tillman used the curve often when he was ahead in the count, and it became a decent strikeout pitch against right-handed hitters. It’s also a pretty looking pitch, as you can see in this video (skip to 1:15).

While he did recover velocity, and seemed to develop some his pitches, Tillman does come with a few concerns. He still gave up far too many home runs last year, a problem that has plagued him throughout his career. If you’re playing in an ottoneu linear points league, that could be a concern. The other issue, again, is velocity. If you look at Tillman’s fastball velocity last season once he reached the majors, you’ll notice that it started to decline as the year went on. That could be an issue of general fatigue, as the season was coming to a close, or it could be that he just has issues sustaining velocity over long stretches. It’s important to note that his velocity only fell to about 92 mph, which is still good for him, but if it had continued to fall, it would have become a legitimate issue. That’s something to watch if you take a shot on Tillman this year.

There’s still a lot of risk with Tillman. While some of his numbers looked better last year, he didn’t do enough to prove himself as an effective pitcher. What is promising is that Tillman managed to regain his velocity last year. That had been a major problem over the past couple of seasons. It was also encouraging to see him utilize a nice mix of pitches. You’re betting on a combination of Tillman’s small improvements, combined with his prospect status. He’s always had ability, but, for the first time in his career, he started to show the skills that made him a prospect. That makes him a solid risk toward the end of most drafts.

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Chris is a blogger for He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

11 Responses to “Chris Tillman: Sleeper”

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  1. BrandonS says:

    Shouldn’t the major risks being that his BABIP reverts to something more akin to reality over a full season? His FIP was over 4 for a reason, and that BABIP was the only thing saving his peripherals. He seems like all risk, to me, but I’m certainly no expert…

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    • Cliff says:

      While I would agree that his .221 BABIP is certainly not sustainable over the course of an entire season, I dont really think that’s what is being suggested here. In other words, I dont think anyone expects his numbers to be nearly as good as they were last year over a larger sample size. That being said, there are still a lot of positives from some of his metrics last year that indicate he could be a very nice addition to one’s fantasy team. Is he going to go 17-6, 2.95 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 200+ Ks?…no, hes most likely not going to put up those numbers…but a guy that can put up an ERA around 3.70-3.90, and WHIP around 1.18-1.22 is still very valuable, especially in deeper leagues…and given that he was a top prospect in his day, there’s certainly immense upside and potential…besides, the article isnt suggesting you draft him in the 4th round…it says he makes for a nice risk toward the end of the draft(ie: the last round or 2)

      Last year, he saw his O-Swing% go up, while his O-Contact% went down quite a bit…i think thats one good indicator that guys were not only swinging at more of his pitches out of the zone, but also making less contact when they did swing….his overall Contact% went down, and his SwStr% went up almost 2.5%, which is quite substantial…lastly, his Fastball velocity went up a full 2.9 MPH from 2011…couple that with a really good BB/9 rate, and i think this article nails it. just my 2 cents though.

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    • NBH says:

      Agree with Brandon – Tillman’s plate discipline (swinging strike, f-strike, contact) was worse than league average. His BB/9 may creep back up to 3.00 and the extreme FB% should keep his ERA near 4.00. It’s nice that his xFIP has declined year over year but I won’t be targeting this guy late – I would much rather stockpile closers, elite setup men, high risk high reward SPs (e.g. Bard and Sale in 2012) or elite AAA bats. SPs like Tillman will be on waivers all year long. I like using late draft picks on guys who could generate lots of upside – I don’t see it in Tillman – yet.

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  2. SF 55 for life says:

    I’m staying away from him on draft day for at least one more year. If he isn’t drafted he will be a watch list guy but the extreme fly ball tendencies worry me a bit.

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  3. jdbolick says:

    I’m an Orioles fan who has zero expectation of a good season from Tillman. He’s someone to avoid in fantasy drafts because of the buzz and illusory ERA.

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  4. dave in GB says:

    Tillman had the benefit of a pretty good O’s defense in their 2nd half, which is coincidently was also called up in the 2nd half. Looking at his periphrials, I just can’t see a breakout. I’m expecting him to be average at best, and just a back rotation starter.

    Speaking of the Orioles, I think Arrieta has all the tools between him, Tillman and Matusz. Arrieta should’ve been way better last year, but with a season that started with Reynolds and Betemit in the oriole infield, that is what killed him.

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  5. Jon Williams says:

    His big velocity was mostly in his first start back in the majors when he was supposedly hitting 95-97. I was attributing that to being psyched up to be back.

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  6. BSLJeffLong says:

    I took a look at Tillman during the playoffs and felt that someing else was behind his improved performance…

    Namely, command of his pitches. Tillman showed a willingness to throw his off speed stuff in fastball counts, keeping hitters off balance and getting weak contact. That helps his babip which will likely regress but probably not all the way up to .280.

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  7. Bbboston says:

    To me,he’s. a great example of why saber metrics need to be consulted but not relied upon. You can’t ignore that he tightened up his delivery by committing to a core based exercise program and tuning up his fundamentals. His willingness to utilize a less predictable pitch mix is directly attributable to in essence creating a repeatable golf swing on all his pitches, thereby making real steps forward. With this reliability, he was more comfortable mixing his pitches. He’s learned to “pitch” last year, because he could call on all his pitches. Regression coming…yes. How much….not as much as most think.

    My question is how much does he commit to further tightening up his body and mechanics during off-season. If he does… I’m all in on him as keeper.

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    • Paul says:

      And for me he is the perfect example of why saber metrics is useful, and can be useful in some instances in complete isolation.

      You seem like a bright individual, take a look at his L/R advanced splits from last season and tell me if you have the same impression.

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  8. Bbboston says:

    Did as you recommended. I’m not an accomplished interpreter of these stats, but its seems you could interpret these stats in two ways: 1) he was totally lucky when pitching to R with men on base; or, 2) he pitches more on the edge of the plate in this scenario and consequently lowers babip and raises LOB%, but raisesBB%.

    Is this possible?

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