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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.