Why Chris Tillman Will Disappoint

Yesterday, fellow RotoGrapher Chris Cwik outlined why he considered Orioles starter Chris Tillman a sleeper. He made some valid points and even sprinkled in some of the negatives that make my argument a bit easier to make. I was actually a fan of Tillman’s last year and picked him up in several leagues shortly after his promotion. But my excitement quickly dwindled and I have revoked my membership in the Chris Tillman Fan Club. This is why.

As Cwik noted, Tillman is a former top prospect, making Baseball America’s top 100 list in both 2008 and 2009. He threw hard and was a key piece in the trade from the Mariners that netted the team Erik Bedard. But then [speculation] injuries [/speculation] and poor performance derailed him and his star dimmed. Then during his time at Triple-A last year, he suddenly jacked up his strikeout rate to the highest mark he has enjoyed since 2009 at Triple-A. His overall performance and the Orioles annual lack of solid pitching led to his eventual call up.

In his first start with the big club, his fastball averaged 95.0 miles per hour. This is from a guy who couldn’t even average 90.0 miles per hour last year and his career best average velocity with the Orioles was just 92.0 miles per hour. This was something to be excited about. Real excited. But as quickly as this new found velocity appeared, it disappeared just as fast. By the end of the season, he was back averaging 91.0-92.0 miles per hour. He averaged 93.0-94.0 in his second and third starts and then didn’t get above 93.0 again. Check out his velocity chart. It’s not pretty.
Velocity Chart

Of course, it’s a great sign that Tillman’s velocity did rebound after failing to average 90.0 miles per hour in 2011. But now it merely equals what he had done in 2009. So this is not a new and improved Tillman, it’s just a welcome back Tillman, where have you been the last two years? Average fastball velocity in the 95.0 mile per hour range got me on board. After the velocity proved to be a fluke, whether it was caused by the rush of adrenaline during his first start back or something else, I jumped off the train.

Using the eye test, it did appear that Tillman had quality stuff. So from watching him, you might very well believe that he had breakout potential and the ability to strike out a lot of batters. But all he could muster was an 8.1% SwStk% (below the 9.0% AL starter average) and 6.9 K/9 (also below the 7.4 AL start average). In fact, he has consistently posted strong strikeout rates in the minors (aside from 2010 and 2011 when he lost velocity), but over 266.2 Major League innings now, that simply has not translated for whatever reason.

Aside from the curiously mediocre strikeout rate, Tillman’s apparent control improvement looks like a fluke. His F-Strike% was just 55.0%, well below the 59.5% AL starter average. Yet, his walk rate of 2.5 was much better than the 3.0 average. The discrepancy almost guarantees that his walk rate is going to jump back above 3.0 next season.

Then there’s the problem of his extreme fly ball ways. Without a strong strikeout rate and only an average walk rate to be expected, the long ball poses serious problems. Camden Yards is quite homer friendly, so the odds of Tillman lucking out with a suppressed HR/FB ratio is low.

Tillman’s perceived value as a sleeper most definitely stems from his 2.93 ERA last year. But as we know, that was built upon on a ridiculous .221 BABIP. Clearly, no one expects him to post another sub-3.00 ERA or come that close. But, his SIERA was all the way up at 4.17, and that probably equates to a more significant difference than most would guess. Since I expect his walk rate to rise, that means a luck-neutral Tillman might actually have a mid-4.00 ERA projection.

As Tillman makes his way onto more and more pre-season sleeper lists, his draft cost is going to rise and suddenly he’s no longer that $1 flyer. There are too many other pitchers with more intriguing skill sets, opportunities to improve those skills and who pitch in better ball parks and/or divisions to keep Tillman on your sleeper list. He’s going to disappoint a lot of owners this year.

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Mike Podhorzer produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. He also sells beautiful photos through his online gallery, Pod's Pics. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

13 Responses to “Why Chris Tillman Will Disappoint”

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  1. jdbolick says:

    Good stuff. This squares with my expectation for Tillman, although as an Orioles fan I’d love to be wrong.

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  2. Paul says:

    Agreed, although I think there is probably a correlation between the decreased FB rate and his improved control. The start I saw him was after his impressive start and I was shocked. He looked exactly like the young starter from three years ago who couldn’t find the plate.

    But the real validation here for me is in his L/R splits. In those 86 innings last season, he absolutely dominated left handers on rate stats, but the LOB% was only 60. Obviously since the ERA was very low he just kept them off base. However, his rates against right handers were quite mediocre, low SO% and high BB%, but his LOB% was 89%!!!!! Holy moly are those some confounders just ripe for regression!

    Stay very, very far away. I would be shocked for him to achieve the SIERA level from last season, he’s a 4th starter type at this point.

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    • Brian says:

      How exactly do you measure LOB% for L/R splits? I’m being serious here… doesn’t make sense to me.

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      • Paul says:

        Runner on second, righthanded batter at the plate, Tillman gets him to pop out. LOB% vs. righthanders currently 100%.

        What the splits are saying is that despite struggling against lefthanded batters overall, he completely dominated them when there were runners on base. OR it could be fluky same size issues where he just didn’t face a lot of lefthanded batters, or even fewer when runners were on base. A 89% LOB% against some split is an outlier, but doesn’t necessarily indicate a guy is a total fluke. But for me, and I’d guess for a few AL East, you pair that with some bad starts where he couldn’t find the plate, and the less than dominant FB, and you just might be able to help your team adjust to what he did last year to get that shiny ERA. I’d stay very far away.

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  3. BSLJeffLong says:

    Mentioned this yesterday, but it’s worth reiterating today.

    I think that part of Tillman’s value is his willingness and ability to throw his offspeed stuff in fastball counts. Previously his control for his secondary pitchers (especially CB and SL) has been atrocious so hitters could sit on the fastball (which is fairly straight).

    I really think Tillman will be in the high 3s in terms of ERA, and it will be because of command & pitch selection rather than velocity.

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  4. Kyle says:

    Didn’t Cliff Lee turn his career around, when he started throwing less 90 mph fastballs and more offspeed stuff. He went from a K:BB ratio of 5 to a K:BB ratio of 10 in two years.

    Tillman could do the same.

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    • Mr. Regression says:

      Well, yes, Tillman *could* through more junkballs and end-up with a 10:1 K:BB ratio in the super-groovy “anything’s possible” metaphysical sense of the word *could.* But let’s just say that Chris Tillman turning himself into Cliff Lee doesn’t represent the most likely comparison outcome for his career arc going forward.

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    • Michael Bluth says:

      Tillman could also learn to throw a knuckleball and become the next RA Dickey.

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  5. wily mo says:

    “But then injuries and poor performance derailed him and his star dimmed.”

    what were the injuries. he might have tweaked his groin now & then or whatever but as far as i know he never actually hurt his arm (or at least, not in a way that’s publicly known), which is what makes the prolonged disappearance & eventual rediscovery of his velocity & effectiveness sort of baffling.

    you really shouldn’t just casually toss around references to a pitcher’s injuries as a catchall term for him sucking for a few years unless he actually did have some, that’s kind of important information when you’re evaluating a pitcher

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    • This is true and I apologize for this. I was merely under the assumption that he couldn’t possibly have been completely healthy with that kind of velocity loss. I’ll clarify that in the post.

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      • wily mo says:

        thanks. & interesting response. (i meant to put a “not trying to be a jerk, but” at the beginning of the last paragraph but forgot. but i’m not trying to be a jerk.)

        i thought the same thing about tillman for a while but i’ve come around to the idea that he was just… pitching wrong, or something. i can’t remember all the specifics but i think i read that they did a lot of work on his mechanics going into 2012 and i mean it seems like it worked.

        who knows though. he’s one of the weirder ones. i see the argument against him – his peripherals are a lot less impressive than the ERA he put up, that’s totally true. on the other hand, the old pedigree combined with the new results is giving me a gut-feeling response that the improvement’s genuine. sometimes guys in this position can bring the peripherals up to match the ERA, instead of the other way around, to where it looks like the run prevention was a leading indicator of talent finally kicking in. not always, though.

        so i’m still on the fence, i guess

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  6. Detroit Michael says:

    I called up Tillman quickly after his first start too, so I can empathize with your situation. However, Tillman’s fastball was recorded as averaging 95.0 mph that day, but it could have been some kind of calibration error with the radar measuring. Of the six other pitchers appearing in the Orioles / Mariners 7/4/2012 game, four of them had fastball velocities at or near their season highs.

    Fastball velocity takes about three games for a starting pitcher to halfway stabilize. When we gamble based on one game that a pitcher’s velocity has changed, it is indeed a gamble.

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  7. hugh jazz says:

    Such a dissapointment…man you guys nailed … 14-3 going into tonight. Must be great to be right 5% of the time and run this. Lmao

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