Chris Tillman isn't very intimidating.
Even at a very healthy 6'5, Tillman carries less-than-marvelous stuff with a low-90's fastball, but even so, the Orioles leading man in the rotation has managed to put together a fairly solid resume. From 2013-14, Tillman averaged 206.2 innings, a 3.53 ERA and 1.22 WHIP, winning 29 of his 42 decisions. There was even talk between Tillman and the Orioles on a pre-2015 extension that would cement the O's ace as the face of Baltimore pitching for the foreseeable future.
Well, this year didn't exactly go as planned.
From April to June, Tillman turned the thought of a spring payday into an evaporated cloud of "welp". Averaging a 5.91 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in the first three months of 2015, TIllman managed to pitch at least six innings in only 7 of his 15 starts. Of those 15 starts, he failed to muster even five innings in five of said outings. Tillman set the tone early for what history proved to be a devastatingly long season.
Though, in July, Tillman seemingly had it all figured out. Disregarding his first start of the month (4.2 IP, 2 ER), Tillman pitched at least six innings in each of his next five starts, allowing only 3 ER in 29.2 innings. For the month, Tillman forced a season-high 41.4% of batted balls to the opposite field, while also throwing 67.3% of his pitches for strikes, another seasonal best. A must for someone with a less-meaty arsenal, Tillman pitched to his talent level while forcing hitters on the defensive, something he didn't do the for the other five months of the year.
August and September mirrored the early months of 2015, as Tillman stuffed a 6.12 ERA and 5.32 FIP into the final two months of his disappointing trek.
According to PITCHf/x, Tillman's 60.9% fastball usage was his highest rate since 2010, while the cutter was seen only 3.7% of the time, a career-low. Tillman's substituted the cutter for more changeups and sliders, and while he saw a +6.6 weighted runs improvement in his changeup, his slider regressed to a below league average number. The tone of every Tillman start seems to come down to the majestically ovular knuckle-curve. As he was forced to go away with it in comparison to last year (because he can't throw the damn thing for a strike), the threat of changing speeds became obsolete. Tillman has to mix his stuff and throw quality strikes because in reality, he simply lacks a punch where he can get away with missing over the plate.
The dismissing of the cut-fastball is dumbfounding because Tillman doesn't have a two-seam fastball to lean on and his four-seam pitch is very, very flat. When Tillman gets behind, which seemed to be far too often, hitters can rely on knowing that they aren't going to be beat by a fastball with movement, but rather a straighter target. That's bad business, especially as the pattern of heavy fastball usage became evident.
What makes all of this so confusing is that Tillman's batted ball numbers were actually better in certain aspects than in 2014. His ground-ball to fly-ball ratio rose from 1.03 to 1.23, while his soft-contact rate and hard-hit rate both peaked and depressed to more acceptable levels.
Again, for Tillman, a lot of his struggles have to do with being able to consistently pound the zone. In 2015, his strike-rate dipped from 63.5% between 2013-14 to 62.8%, and though that may not seem so drastic, over the course of 2,943 pitches, a one percent reduction in coming over the plate for someone that needs to throw strikes is a backbreaker. To put the importance of strikes into perspective, Tillman's July strike-rate of 67.3% nearly matched Clayton Kershaw's 2015 frequency of 67.8%. Not to say that Tillman can become the pitcher Kershaw is, it's just a simple reminder of what can happen when hitters are attacked, not dodged.
More walks and less strikeouts further complicated the art of pitching for Tillman. He was supposed to set the example for the rest of the staff and he failed to do so. Perhaps a philosophical change is needed from an organizational standpoint because Tillman's yet another example of what limiting an already limited talent can do. This past year was supposed to further the establishment of Chris Tillman as a FIP-defier and generally solid pitcher, but instead, we were reminded of what the potential basement is for the man that is supposed to be the Orioles most dependable arm.
While I remiss to say such, it's a near impossibility he has a season worse than this, but I'm not really sure it gets much better either.