Until 2012, the onetime Orioles "cavalry" of Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Zach Britton were truly birds of a feather -- bouncing between AAA and the big club, prolonged bouts of ineffectiveness spelled by flashes of the brilliance that once tagged them as prospects, but no real results that would get them to stick in the majors. Britton and Arietta are still in that same frustrating place (Arietta in a new home with the Cubs) and Matusz is trying his hand as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen, but Tillman turned a corner after his callup for the 2012 stretch run. He has stuck in the Orioles' rotation ever since, looking effective and at times even dominant. 2013 was the full season where Tillman proved it wasn't an illusion, pitching over 200 innings, garnering his first All-Star appearance and looking like at least a legitimate #2 starter.
Let's get the knocks on Tillman out of the way early. Even now that he's gotten his walks down to a respectable level, he still has a propensity to nibble, taking too many batters to three-ball counts and elevating his pitch count, which keeps him from consistently getting deep in ballgames. He's homer-prone; he gave up 33 this year, a team high on a team that led the majors in home runs allowed. Thankfully, though, he's more liable to give up solo shots than big blasts. And lastly, his fastball often looks pretty flat, leaving Tillman very dependent on the effectiveness of his breaking pitches on any given day.
But those negatives aren't overwhelming, like Tillman's old negatives, like walking batters left and right before serving up a home run, or getting knocked around the order when he dared to throw more strikes. The fact is, Tillman will never be Clayton Kershaw, but he's got enough of a track record to look like he's going to stick as an effective major leaguer. On a good day, his curveball is an elite-looking out pitch. He held up a sturdy 2.63 K/BB ratio this season. He's displaying confidence on the mound and rarely seems willing to give in on a tough at-bat.
One of the concerns about Tillman's absurd post-callup stretch run in 2012 was that he would regress in 2013, based on factors like a crazy low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and an ERA significantly lower than his fielding-independent pitching (FIP) or expected fielding-independent pitching (xFIP). The good news about 2013 is that those factors mostly did come back to reality, and Tillman was still a very useful starter. The BABIP came up from an unsustainable .221 in 2012 to a realistic .269 in 2013, and his ERA did rise (from 2.93 to 3.71), but his FIP and xFIP (4.42 and 3.88, respectively) came down to realms where the new ERA is much more believable. 2012 Tillman may have indeed run on some smoke and mirrors, but the underlying metrics suggest that (much like the Orioles as a whole), 2013 Tillman may have actually gotten better even as his luck evened out and the results came back to earth.
Chris Tillman was a shining positive in a season of frustration for Orioles fans. As the team came up just short, Tillman took the ball every fifth day and made fans believe the team could win that day without a tightrope act. At his best, he could do a serviceable impression of an ace, and even on bad days he learned to limit the damage. It's a near certainty that Tillman will take the mound for the team's 2014 Opening Day. Considering that Tillman hasn't even hit arbitration yet and won't be a free agent until 2018, fans can reasonably hope it will be the first of many Opening Day starts for their new ace.