It's no secret that many people around here, myself included, have been very disappointed with the treatment of Chris Tillman this season. He is making one final start for the Norfolk Tides tonight before being brought back to the team as a September call up, but that doesn't make up for the roller coaster ride the Orioles have put him on this year.
Going into Spring Training it was assumed that one of this year's rotation spots would go to Tillman, but he didn't impress the Orioles brass with nine walks to just ten strikeouts in his sixteen spring innings (because ST stats are so indicative of talent). Instead the Orioles went with David Hernandez as the fifth starter (he racked up twenty Ks to just three BBs). Both Tillman and Hernandez were in the O's rotation in 2009, and while both had their troubles, Tillman was not only better in '09 but is also clearly the more talented pitcher with the higher ceiling. Combined with that was his domination of AAA hitters in eighteen starts prior to his big league debut on 29 July 2009 (96.2 IP, 2.70 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 9.22 K/9, 2.42 BB/9), and the decision to keep Hernandez was something of a head scratcher.
But he walked nine batters in Spring Training, so off to AAA he went. I know, it was probably more complicated than that (maybe). Whatever the reason, David Hernandez was given a spot in the rotation where he made eight uninspired starts before the Orioles realized that he belongs in the bullpen. Chris Tillman went to Norfolk where he started off a little rough (having lost his major league paycheck probably threw him for a loop), but after a few starts settled down. In the seven starts leading to his call up, Tillman allowed 11 earned runs in 49 innings (that's a 2.02 ERA). He struck out 37 and walked 8, and he never walked more than two batters in a game. Oh, and for good measure he pitched a no hitter. As he did in '09, Tillman proved that he did not find AAA hitters to be challenging.
Called up on 29 May, Tillman made four starts for the Orioles before they decided it was time for him to go back to AAA. In those four starts he had two decent games and twice he got knocked around, and that was apparently all the Orioles needed to see. He hadn't had time to prove anything and he was gone. The quick hook on Tillman was contradictory to the way the Orioles have treated the other pitchers on the team this season, notably Jake Arrieta, who has been given much more leeway than Tillman this year despite inferior performance. Even Hernandez got eight starts before he was banished to the bullpen.
Back in AAA, Tillman picked up where he left off. He made three starts where he allowed 4 ER in 21.2 innings with a K/BB of 2.6. His reward was a trip back to Baltimore (well, actually Texas), and in case my upcoming tone doesn't properly portray it, this is where you should start to get a little outraged on behalf of Chris Tillman. Tillman pitched a fantastic game in Texas, allowing just one unearned run on two hits in 7.1 innings. He out pitched Cliff Lee and shut down one of the better offenses in the league. It was a very encouraging start.
The Rangers series was the final one played before the All-Star Break, so when Tillman next took the mound, this time against the Tampa Bay Rays, he'd had twice the amount of time between starts that he normally does, and it affected him. In fact, it affected a lot of pitchers, as the only Oriole in the rotation who didn't stink coming out of the All-Star Break was the veteran Jeremy Guthrie. Tillman, Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, and Brian Matusz all stunk it up. In fact, Arrieta and Bergesen had been taking turns stinking for awhile and both continued to do so for the Orioles after those starts. Not Chris Tillman, though! Forget about that outstanding game in Texas, forget about the fact that he'd just had eight days rest when he's used to four, clearly he needed to go back to Norfolk after such a disappointing performance against the best team in baseball.
This time, Tillman didn't get right back into the groove of things. In his first three starts back in AAA he wasn't himself, giving up 5 ER in 3.2 IP, 4 ER in 4.1 IP, and 4 ER in 5.0 IP before finally putting together a few good starts. Can you blame him for losing focus? I can't. Tillman is a 22 year old pitcher who has shown multiple times that he is too good for AAA. He hasn't been given one fair chance with the Orioles this season and to make matters worse he has watched as other pitchers have been given an extended opportunity to straighten things out on the big league level. That includes Arrieta, who Tillman has out-pitched in the minors (and the majors, frankly) despite being two years younger and a level ahead of him for most of their careers.
What does this say about the Orioles? Is the problem in their evaluation of their players? Do they really think a handful of sporadic starts in the majors gives an accurate picture of Tillman's talent? And if so, why wasn't Arrieta sent down after he had a couple bad starts? Do they believe there is nothing more Arrieta can learn in AAA while Tillman can? It's impossible to know the full motivation behind their decisions about Chris Tillman, but just by looking at the end results it appears that they value something in Arrieta over Tillman that just isn't showing up in their pitching. And I'm not trying to devalue or throw Arrieta under the bus by mentioning him so much; I believe he's been done as much a disservice as Tillman by the team.
None of it sits well with me and frankly it's one of the most discouraging things that I've taken from this season so far. There is still time to fix it, though, by giving Tillman a few uninterrupted starts in September and by bringing him in to Spring Training next year and evaluating him on his talent level and not a few arbitrary spring numbers. To my knowledge, Buck Showalter hasn't seen Tillman pitch in person (although with as much as he's reported to be around the minor league teams I could be wrong) and I hope that Tillman will find an ally in the new O's manager, so that if he is going to bust as a pitcher, he at least fails on his own merit and not because of mishandling by the team.