For years, one of the major knocks on the Orioles was that they didn't have that one guy who could go toe-to-toe with any other team's number one starter. They didn't have that guy that gave off a vibe of invincibility. They didn't have that guy that would take the mound after the O's lost a few games in a row and would be almost guaranteed to get a W. They didn't have an ace.
Fine, it is totally understandable if you don't view Chris Tillman as that "ace". But he is the closest thing the organization has had to one since Mike Mussina bucked the orange and black in favor of pinstripes back at the turn of the century.
Go down the list: Jason Hammel was nice for half of a season. Jeremy Guthrie threw a lot of innings, but also gave up a lot of home runs. Daniel Cabrera would be great one day and a train wreck the next. Kris Benson had a pretty wife. Erik Bedard was good for one season and great for one trade. Rodrigo Lopez started on Opening Day a few times, but those were dark, dark times. Don't even get me started on Sidney Ponson. Tillman is a stand out, despite the fact that many casual fans want to dismiss him.
For the second season in a row, he turned in more than 200 innings of work, setting a career high with 207.7 innings pitched. That was good for 19th-best in all of baseball and the most for an Oriole since Guthrie threw 208.0 innings back in 2011.
Through those innings, he managed to tally an ERA of 3.34 at the season's end. Much of that was helped by his play from mid-July to the end of the regular season. In that time, he made 14 starts and had a record of 6-1, losing only the final game of the year. His ERA dropped from 4.11 on July 18 to 3.26 when he faced the Blue Jays on the last day of the regular season.
Tillman was a mark of consistency throughout 2014. He had just one month where his ERA jumped about 4.00. That was in May (5.68 ERA) when he was roughed up by Pittsburgh and Milwaukee in back-to-back starts, setting the tone for the month.
However, in that same month he turned in his only complete game of the season, and the second one of his career. It came on May 16 against the eventual-AL Champion (oh, shut up!) Kansas City Royals. He threw nine innings of five-hit, scoreless baseball to earn the win.
Some of his success could be due to that fact that he made opponents put the ball on the ground more often, 40.6 percent of the time. While at the same time, he kept fly balls in the park with only 8.3 percent becoming home runs compared to 14.2 percent a year ago.
That is seen elsewhere in his numbers. In 2013 he was giving up 1.44 long balls every nine innings pitched. This past season it was below one, just 0.91
This all came despite the fact that he was striking out the fewest batters, 6.51 K/9, he has since 2010, when it was just his second year in the bigs. And his fastball had lost some serious zip since 2012. Back then, his number one averaged 92.4 mph on the gun. In 2014, it was just 90.7 mph and he used it more than he ever has before.
So, why the heck was he successful? Was it voodoo? Well, one part of his game may be close to it. When it comes to holding runners on base the Orioles righty is one of the best in the world. No, really.
Fangraphs did a much better job of describing it than I ever could, but here is the cliff notes version. There were only four steals attempted against Tillman all season and only one was a success. That was the fifth-fewest attempts against any starter in all of baseball. And it is all thanks to his quick time to the plate and his process of getting set on the rubber. It may be something minute but it helps to keep the runners 90 feet farther away from home plate and that can be, for some, no small feat.
The glaring hole in Tillman's game for 2014 was his inability to settle into a game quickly. His ERA in innings one, two and three was 5.56, 4.78 and 3.38 respectively. Between innings 4-9 his ERA is a minuscule 2.22. In those opening three frames his batting average against on balls in play is .331 and hitters slash .285/.351/.440.
That was exactly what proved to be his undoing against the Royals in the ALCS. In the third inning he allowed four runs off of four hits, including a home run and a double. It put the O's in a hole early in a game they ended up losing 8-6.
I'm not sure how that is fixed. Does Tillman need more time warming up prior to his first pitch? Is it all between the ears? Whatever the reason, if it is fixed he could take that next step to being a bonafide "ace". Let's not forget, he is still 26 years old. though he feels like the Birds have had him for a decade.
Unless something unexpected happens in Birdland this off-season, expect Tillman to take the hill at Tropicana Field on April 6 in Tampa Bay for the Opening Day of the 2015 season. He may not be what everyone expects from a number one starter, but he is ours and we like him a whole lot.