AL $1 Option: Chris Tillman

There’s an Oriole starter that quietly moving up draft boards and garnering dark-horse votes for the 2010 ROY. He’s being lauded for his poise and polish, and fantasy managers are snatching him up despite his formidable AL East opponents. Talk of his dominating college and minor league performances spreads from water cooler to water cooler and the hype is growing.

That pitcher is not Chris Tillman. Still valued at $0 in AL-only leagues on, Tillman is languishing on draft boards and isn’t inspiring the same excitement currently, despite possibly more upside. Is there an open secret sitting in the shadows behind Brian Matusz? Maybe it’s the whole left-handed thing.

It seems a fait accompli that Tillman will rise to the top of this rotation… eventually. The numbers from the minor leagues, though, don’t necessarily bear out all that optimism. For every positive, there’s seemingly a negative that brings an asterisk.

Take his strikeout rate – Tillman had a nice, steady strikeout rate all the way through the minors as he rode his 92+ MPH fastball and big breaking curveball to a 9.8 K/9 career minor league rate that never once dipped below a strikeout per inning. That’s beautiful. Less exciting is his career minor league 3.89 BB/9 that was actually over four walks per nine in the majority of his stops along the way. Much of the optimism about Tillman comes from his stellar work in AAA last year, when he put up an outlier walk rate (2.4 BB/9) that he had never once shown before. In his short time in the majors last year, the walk rate looked okay (3.3 BB/9), but the strikeout rate wasn’t there. Though he’s still young (21) and did most of his minor league work before he could drink, Tillman needs to repeat his 2009 control to really impress the general public, it seems.

Then there’s the pitching mix. The scouts like his fastball and his curveball, but it was his changeup that was the only pitch that scored positively in linear weights last year. He also gave up too many fly balls on mid-to-high-heat as Heat Mapper Dave Allen showed so beautifully late last year. That problem seems commensurate with his minor league career, where he had about an unimpressive one-to-one groundball-to-flyball ratio.

Can a fly-ball pitcher succeed in Baltimore, or can Tillman at least push his ratio back to his minor league level? No matter what, the home run rate should fall. His 2.08 HR/9 rate came on the heels of a 15.2 HR/FB percentage that shouldn’t continue.

There’s also talk of Tillman developing a cutter, which, as Daniel Moroz of Camden Crazies points out, might help him locate his pitches in a new part of the zone in between his high heat and his low curveball. Although the cutter is en vogue, and it doesn’t work for everyone, Tillman might really benefit from augmenting his pitching mix. Anything to keep him from grooving fastballs at the belt would, of course, help.

Taken as a whole, there’s more to like than dislike in the Tillman package. If you squint just right, you could see this young pitcher find his old dominant strikeout rate, push the groundball-to-flyball ratio back to his normal (if mediocre) levels, exhibit his new-found control once again, and drastically improve his results. That’s all without the intrigue of the new pitch added in. In an AL-only league, that’s certainly worth a dollar.

Print This Post

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

newest oldest most voted

I agree.

And I have Tillman for $1 already.

But I won’t keep him.

I only have room on my keeper list for one $1 pitching prospect and Tillman, Derek Holland and Hector Rondon have not secured that spot, which goes to none other than Brian Matusz.

That said, Tillman is on my list of $1 pitchers to target at auction. My guess is that at age 21 it will take him another year to learn to pitch down in the zone effectively but it’s a reasonable gamble to see if it will happen sooner, especially if your league has a reserve list and keepers.

The possibility of using a cutter is interesting – thanks for pointing that out.