Chris Tillman will take the mound for the Orioles tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays. With Wei-Yin Chen on the disabled list with an oblique strain and Jason Hammel struggling to return to his 2012 form, it's safe to say that Chris Tillman is currently the #1 pitcher on the Orioles. He wouldn't be a #1 on a lot of staffs, but he's ours and he's been pretty good this season.
After starting 2012 in the minor leagues, Tillman made 15 starts for the Orioles starting July 4th. He was more successful than we'd ever seen him, pitching to 2.93 ERA and walking fewer batters than we'd ever seen from him. The advanced statistics that attempt to provide a more accurate picture for what to expect going forward didn't like him as much. Tillman's FIP was
4.68 4.25 and he had a pretty low BABIP at just .221.
I don't think many of us (if any of us) expected Tillman to pitch to a sub-3.00 ERA in 2013 as he did in 2012, so the question was just how much would it go up and would he pitch well enough to keep his spot in the rotation? So far, Tillman has been successful. He has a 3.52 ERA, which is quite a bit better than average. FIP still doesn't like him, though, as he sits at 4.68 for that stat. There are pitchers who consistently out pitch their FIP (Jeremy Guthrie comes to mind), so hopefully for the Orioles that is what is happening with Tillman and he won't crash anytime soon.
So what's going well so far for Tillman that can give us hope that he'll continue to pitch well this season? And what should we keep in mind as possible factors for a downturn?
Tillman's line drive rate of 21.4% is roughly the same as 2012 (21%), but so far this season he has been about dead even between fly balls (39.6%) and ground balls (39%). He's not close to being a ground ball pitcher, but his FB% is about 5% lower than it was in both 2011 and 2012. This is good news, since every ball hit on the ground is one less ball that could sail out of the ballpark. And with the above average defense of the infield behind him, those ground balls are even more likely to become outs.
Another thing I've noticed about Tillman this season is that his fastball seems much more effective. In 15 starts in 2012, Tillman's fastball was worth -4.6 runs above average (making it, of course, below average). So far in 2013 it has been worth 6.5 runs above average. That's quite a swing. The pitch value of his other pitches has dropped, which is disappointing, but since his fastball is thrown over 50% of the time, it's the pitch you want to get good results on for sure. His second-most thrown pitch, the curveball, is also positively rated.
One possible stat to keep an eye on is Tillman's walk rate this season. At 3.52 it's not out of control, but of the pitchers who have made more than one start for the Orioles, only Jake Arrieta's is higher. It's one full walk per nine higher than it was last year, and that combined with his (slightly) higher HR rate of 1.34 could end up getting him in trouble.
Something else to keep in mind for Tillman is that he has a pretty high LOB% so far in 2013. At 83%, it's better than both the league average and Tillman's career average. If/when that drops, it could have an ugly affect on his ERA and on the team's chance to win when he's pitching.
I'm not in the projecting business myself, there are just way too many variables for that. But I think there are good signs about Tillman this season and the truth is that, at least for the moment, he's the O's best bet for a good starting pitching performance.
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.