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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.