We may chuckle at his pitcher win totals, and derisively refer to him as #StaffAce, but Chris Tillman has been a pretty important pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles over the last two seasons. And while the value of pitcher wins may be debatable (is it simply low, or is it actually null?), Chris Tillman has put up 21 of them since his first start last year on July 4. And if we limit ourselves to a strict calendar year, his win on Friday night gave him 20 in the past 52 weeks.
Yes, you read that right - Chris Tillman is a 20-game winner in the last calendar year.
"But, but, but..." you say to yourself, "How in the world did that happen? He's just not that good." Ah, but he's consistent, even in his flaws. And in the American League, that can be pretty valuable with the right team behind you.
We know what's wrong with Chris Tillman. The many flaws in Chris Tillman as a starting pitcher can be boiled down to one central characteristic - he throws too many damn pitches. Sure, many more are strikes than balls, but foul balls, 3-2 counts, walks, even strikeouts instead of ground balls, they add up. He throws the second highest amount of pitches per batter in the American League with 4.21 pitches per batter in 2013. He's 5th worst in pitches per inning in the AL, at 17.7/IP. In 34 starts since his recall on July 4 last year, he's made it through 7 innings just 11 times. That's fewer than one-third of his starts.
And Tillman is giving up runs at a much greater clip this year than last season. His ERA is a full point higher in 2013 than 2012 (2.93 last year compared to 3.95 so far this year). He's throwing strikes at the exact same rate - 62%. (For reference, his 2012 and 2013 stats from B-R.com.)
BABIP has not been kind to him this year, or rather, it was too kind to him last year. His BABIP was just .222 for all of last season, and it's .275 this year, much more in line with the league average. His GB/FB rate this year is among the worst for qualified pitchers in the AL at 0.67. Only four of the 48 qualified pitchers are lower. He gave up not quite a HR a start in 2012 (12 HR in 15 starts), and it's higher this year (20 HR in 19 starts). With just four more starts, he's already given up eight more HRs. That's not good.
How does he compare to his peers? Let's look at another starter on a team in contention, the Cleveland Indians'Justin Masterson. They're roughly the same pitcher this year, according to ERA+ as Tillman clocks in at 107, Masterson at 104. Yet, with just one more start than Tillman, Masterson has pitched 24 more innings (135.1 to 111.2). That's almost 4 extra starts of 6 innings for Masterson. Which, not so coincidentally, means 24 fewer innings that the bullpen has to cover in Masterson's starts.
Is Tillman improving at all? He is averaging more pitches per start this year - 103.7 versus 95.8, even though his starts aren't lasting any longer. He averaged almost exactly 5.2 IP per start last year, and it's just a tick above that this year. Last year, he finished the 7th inning in seven of his 15 starts. This year, he's finished the 7th in seven of his 19 starts. His WHIP was 1.024 last year, it's 1.352 this year. His H/9 is up 2.0 a game from last year, his BB/9 is up almost a full walk from last year (2.5 to 3.3) and his K/BB ratio is down (2.75 to 2.17). If anything, he's regressing from last year.
So what is Chris Tillman doing right? That's a great question, and most of it has to do with the guys with the bats in the other half of the innings he works. Basically, he's just good enough in his starts for this particular team to win. Tillman is ninth in the American League in run support, with 5.37 runs scored for the Orioles in his average start. On the Orioles, only Jason Hammel gets more run support (not that he's doing much with it). Miguel Gonzalez gets only 4.43 runs per start in support. No other Orioles had sufficient innings to compare.
And to give one historical example, Jeremy Guthrie, in his statistically best season for the O's (2008), had a 3.63 ERA and a 1.227 WHIP and just 4.28 runs in support. He won just 10 games in 30 starts. Ouch.
Moral of the story? Starting pitchers look a lot better when their own team scores runs. Tillman manages to give up fewer than his opposition much more often than not. Doesn't mean he's pitching particularly well, but it does make him a winning pitcher, for however little that is worth.
He's staying healthy and taking the ball every fifth day. He's also been durable. He was tied with 18 other pitchers for 3rd in the AL with 19 starts going into Saturday's game. Jason Hammel made his 19th start Saturday, giving the Orioles two starters with as many as 19 starts.
Every team the O's are chasing in the playoffs has that many, if not three. Chris Tillman may not be an ace, but his ability to start every fifth day and not completely suck shouldn't be discounted. And with the train wreck that has been the result of the Orioles' search for consistent pitching behind Chen, Gonzalez, Tillman and Hammel, it's a rather valuable characteristic. Miguel Gonzalez is close behind with 16 starts, and Chen is hopefully back for the duration, which bodes well for success from the rotation in the second half. There's something to be said for showing up all the time and being good, even if you can't be great.
He is who he is, and that's OK. Tillman is 25th in starting pitcher ERA in the 15-team American League among those with enough innings to qualify (just head of CC Sabathia, by the way). He's 23rd in starting pitcher WAR, 30th in WHIP, 26th in K's. He was the O's #2 starter for a good chunk of the season when Wei-Yin Chen went down for two months, and while he's basically been a bad #2 pitcher by stats in comparison to his AL peers, he makes a pretty good #3. When Chris Tillman is your second-best pitcher, you probably have a problem with your rotation. When he's your third-best pitcher, not so much.
He's young, cheap and here for a while. Chris Tillman is also a valuable starter for the same reason most of Tampa Bay's rotation is valuable - he's relatively young, cheap and is under team control through 2017. The 25-year-old, who makes just $508,500 this year, doesn't even reach arbitration until 2015 and can't be a free agent until 2018. It seems like forever ago the Orioles acquired Tillman (and Adam Jones, among others) from Seattle, and, well, it was. This is, believe it or not, Tillman's sixth season in the organization.
We're getting this year what Chris Tillman is most likely to be going forward. He throws too many pitches, he'll consistently get to (and probably through) the 6th inning, but you're gonna need someone else to finish the 7th. And if your team scores 5 or more runs, you're almost always going to win a Chris Tillman start as long as the bullpen does its job. But it's probably going to take 5 runs to get that win.
So laugh as you will at pitcher win totals, but Chris Tillman, for the most part, has given the Orioles a chance to win most of the time he starts. If he started for Tampa Bay this year with its offense, we're not having any conversations about 11 pitcher wins by the All-Star Break.
But Chris Tillman pitches for the hard-hittin' Orioles, and he's pitched well enough the past calendar year to keep this team in games, and they usually reward him for doing so. That's not a bad guy to have as a #3 starter, taking the ball every fifth day.
LATE ADDITION: And now he's a 2013 American League All-Star:
Chris Tillman replacing Justin Verlander on AL All star team. #orioles— Eduardo A. Encina (@EddieInTheYard) July 14, 2013