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Orioles pitching analysis: Does Chris Tillman's strand rate indicate that he has been lucky?

If you get on base against the Orioles' Chris Tillman, don't celebrate just yet: you probably won't cross the plate. Tillman has the second-highest left-on-base percentage (LOB%) out of all starters in Major League Baseball

Thearon W. Henderson

Last season, Chris Tillman left 71.4% of his runners on base, which is about major-league average. This season, he's leaving 82.6% of his runners on base, a huge increase and a rate that places him among the elite pitchers in the game. Prior to Sunday's game, the major-league rankings in LOB% looked like this:

  1. Yu Darvish: 84.7%
  2. Chris Tillman: 82.6%

Other pitchers hovering around 80% are Patrick Corbin, James Shields, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Shelby Miller. Great pitchers (at least this season), all.

In fact you'll find that a LOB% this high accompanies elite seasons. Here's the list of such accomplishments in the past 20 years, along with their increase in LOB% since the previous year

  • 2000 Pedro Martinez (won the Cy Young that year), +9%
  • 2001 Curt Schilling (Cy Young runner-up), +9%
  • 1997 Randy Johnson (Cy Young runner-up), +9%
  • 2004 Jake Peavy (171 ERA+), +6%
  • 2002 Randy Johnson (Cy Young), +2.5%
  • 1995 Greg Maddux (Cy Young), +4%
  • 2010 Cole Hamels (133 ERA+), +10%
  • 2012 Jeremy Hellickson (124 ERA+), +0.7%
  • 2010 Roy Halladay (Cy Young), +4%
  • 2008 Johan Santana (166 ERA+, 3rd place in Cy Young), +4.3%
  • 2011 Jered Weaver (156 ERA+, Cy Young runner-up), +7%

What a great list of names to be associated with. A high LOB% doesn't mean a Cy Young award, as we see here and as demonstrated by the fact that this list accounts for only few of the 40 Cy Youngs handed out in the past 20 years. It doesn't even mean that you are necessarily an elite pitcher. And at 25 years old, the list of pitchers with a season like Tillman's is filled with many good-but-not-great names.

But if you're demonstrating anything that the guys in the above list have done, you are doing something right. Let's take a moment to appreciate that.

Has he actually improved?

How much of this improvement is luck and how much of it is skill? The eternal question. Actually, there are two questions here. What's behind Tillman's success with men on base in 2013, and can he maintain it going forward?

The answer to the first question is undoubtedly "luck!" for three reasons:

  • Tillman's underlying numbers like K%, BB%, etc. are not better enough this year, relative to last year or his career, to explain an 11% jump in LOB%.
  • You can see above that pitchers have trouble repeating such high LOB% numbers. Only Johnson managed to do it.
  • The highest career LOB% for pitchers with 2,500+ IP is 77.9% (owned by Whitey Ford).

Not all is lost, though. The answer to the second question is "it looks like he can." Let's explore his career line with men on base vs. this year's line:

  • Career line with men on base: .251/.332/.421 (.330 wOBA), 18.7% K rate, 9.6% BB rate, 22.4% line-drive rate, 9.1% HR/FB rate, 35.4% GB rate, .291 BABIP
  • 2013 line with men on base: .234/.317.381 (.309 wOBA), 20.6% K rate, 9.9% BB rate, 25% line-drive rate, 10.7% HR/FB rate, 39.1% GB rate, .277 BABIP

There are actually some unlucky stats in there. This year he's giving up more line drives and home runs with men on base than he has in the past. However, he's striking out more batters (increased K%) and getting weaker contact overall when they do make contact (higher GB%, lower BABIP). The latter more than compensates for the former.

Other indicators point to skill. His overall K% and GB% have increased steadily since 2009 (excepting an abysmal 2010) while his walk rate and BABIP have remained close to major-league average. Given that Tillman is 25, entering his supposed peak years as a player, we have reason to hope he can sustain this success.

He doesn't even have to be this good ever again. Among pitchers with 2,500+ IP in their careers, a LOB% of 75% is where we see Hall of Famers and borderlines like Drysdale, Gibson, Tiant, Martinez, Spahn, Bunning, Hunter, Schilling, Clemens, Cone, Marichal, Lemon, Jenkins, Blyleven, Feller, Carlton, and Lolich. That's some great company.

Tillman has a long way to go to get there. His walk rate and home run rate are two things that are preventing him from moving up a tier. And he has to prove he can sustain 2013's success. But his high LOB% this year is one indicator that his career is taking a step forward. Not bad for a guy who started 2012 in AAA.