Right-hander Chris Tillman is expected to play a prominent role in the Baltimore Orioles’ attempt to climb from the depths of the AL East standings. The 22-year-old, picked up as part of the February 2008 Erik Bedard deal with the Seattle Mariners, has both the performance record and scouting reports to elicit the attention of fantasy owners everywhere. Yet, Tillman’s early turns in the big league rotation over the 2009 and 2010 seasons have been underwhelming — with a 5.24 xFIP in 90 innings pitched, he has been slightly worse than replacement-level. Why has Tillman scuffled so far, and what can be expected in the future? Let’s try to find out.
First, I’d like to point out that the MLB numbers to be referenced have occurred in 90 innings, spread over two seasons. It’s a woefully inadequate sample with which to make any sort of bold claim. I’m simply trying to explore why Tillman has performed poorly to this point. The fact that he hasn’t zoomed out of the gate doesn’t preclude him from becoming a quality starter down the line.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s a look at how Tillman’s major league peripheral stats match up with his Major League Equivalent (MLE) line, based on his pitching in the minors over the past two seasons. In other words, here’s how Tillman has pitched in the majors, compared to how we would have expected him to pitch based on his minor league stats:
Actual MLB: 5.1 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 1.80 HR/9, 5.24 xFIP
2009-2010 MLE (based on 176 IP with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides): 6.57 K/9, 2.89 BB/9, 0.95 HR/9, 4.31 FIP
Tillman has punched out about 1.5 less batters per nine innings than his MLE suggests. The lack of whiffs is reflected in his plate discipline stats — opponents have made contact against Tillman 84.9% of the time they take a cut (81% MLB average). Tillman’s swinging strike rate is 6.2%, while the big league average sits between eight and nine percent.
Looking at his Pitch F/X data, he has garnered a below average number of whiffs with his 91-92 MPH fastball (reputed to be 94+ MPH in the past) and upper-70’s curveball. Tillman’s heater has been whiffed at 4.6% (6% MLB average), and his curve 6.8% (11.6%). His 79-80 MPH change has a 13.9% whiff rate, which bests the 12.6% MLB average.
Tillman’s walk rate is higher than expected, due at least in part to his getting behind the hitter right from the get-go. Tillman’s first pitch strike percentage in the bigs is 54.5%, compared to the 58% MLB average. According to Baseball-Reference, batters have gotten ahead in the count at some point in 38.1% of their plate appearances versus Tillman. The AL average, by contrast, is 35-36 percent. Tillman has been ahead in the count at some point in 24.8% of opponent plate appearances, while the AL average is 30-31%. He’s spending too much time in hitter’s counts and too little time in pitcher’s counts, which obviously influences both his punch out and walk numbers.
Going back to the Pitch F/X data, Tillman’s throwing lots of strikes with his fastball — 66.1%, compared to the 64% MLB average. But, our Pitch Type Run Values suggest hitters are slamming the offering. Tillman’s fastball has been -1.65 runs below average per 100 pitches. He’s not throwing his curve or changeup for strikes — 50.7% for the deuce (58% MLB average) and 57.4% for the change (60.7%). But those secondary pitches fare better in terms of run value (-0.09 for the curve, +0.43 for the change).
Homers have also been an issue. Tillman has coughed up 1.8 dingers per nine. His home run per fly ball rate is inflated, at 14.1% (the MLB average is about 11%). However, Camden Yards increased home runs per fly ball hit by 15 percent over the 2006-2009 seasons. And, Tillman gives up lots of fly balls — his GB% in the majors is just 38.1%, and it was 37.6% in Triple-A over the past two seasons. If he had given up home runs per fly ball hit at a league average rate (11%) on the road and about 13% at home, he would have been taken deep 16 times so far (1.6 HR/9), instead of 18. Given Tillman’s flyballing ways, he’s not a great fit for his home venue. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why he has been working on a two-seam fastball, an offering that generates more ground balls than any other pitch type.
Fantasy owners, particularly those in keeper leagues, should have patience with Tillman. He won’t turn 23 until next April, and he was considered a top 25 prospect by Baseball America as recently as last season. That being said, there are some concerns here — Tillman’s strikeout rate fell at Norfolk this season, his fastball velocity has been less than advertised and hitters often loft the ball against him, a negative considering his home ball park. In the present moment, expect adequacy instead of excellence — ZiPS projects 6.11 K/9, 3.21 BB/9, 1.29 HR/9 and a 4.69 FIP for the rest of 2010, while CHONE forecasts 6.14 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 1.37 HR/9 and a 4.68 neutralized ERA.
Right now, Tillman isn’t showcasing the electric stuff that earned him the adulation of scouts. But keeper league players are best off holding tight and hoping that the mid-90’s heat and hammer curve return. Those just playing for the here and now should recognize Tillman’s lack of polish, while keeping a close eye on his outings. Pitchers don’t necessarily develop in a linear fashion; if he’s not hurt, perhaps Tillman’s just a mechanical tweak away from returning to form.
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