After last night's loss to the Yankees, Chris Tillman has given up 22 earned runs in 31.2 innings pitched, good for a 6.25 ERA. He's allowed his opponents to bat .285/.379/.496 off of him, for an OPS 2 points higher than that of David Ortiz in 2014. Tillman has been recording less strikeouts, more walks, and allowing more home runs than ever before. So, what's going on? Is this the year that Tillman finally starts "regressing" to where the projections have had him pegged all along? Were three straight seasons of significantly outperforming his peripheral stats like FIP really just luck?
I wouldn't make that conclusion yet. As great as Tillman was in 2014, it's easy to forget that he did almost the exact same thing last season. After a few great starts at the beginning of the year, Tillman was awful for nearly two full months. The low point was his one-inning performance against the Pirates last may, where the Orioles couldn't take advantage of a 6-run, 1.2 inning outing by Wandy Rodriguez thanks to an even more disastrous outing by Tillman. There were countless "What's wrong with Chris Tillman?" articles assuming he must be suffering from a mystery injury. There were calls to put him on the 15-day DL and give him a chance to get it together. There were even calls from some to send him to Norfolk.
We all know what happened next: Tillman got it together and was absolutely lights out after the All-Star break - he eclipsed 200 innings, tied for the MLB lead in games started with 34, and finished with a 3.34 ERA. In fact, if we look back to 2013, he had a similar second-half improvement, although far less drastic. Here's a look at what he's done over the past two seasons, compared to this year:
|2013 (1st half)||111.2||7.17||3.30||1.61||4.94||3.95|
|2013 (2nd half)||94.2||8.56||2.57||1.24||3.82||3.42|
|2014 (1st half)||118.1||5.63||3.65||0.91||4.49||4.11|
|2014 (2nd half)||89.0||7.69||1.82||0.91||3.38||2.33|
Clearly, Tillman has been a far better pitcher late in the season the past few years. In 2013 and 2014 he improved in essentially every meaningful statistic after the halfway point. Obviously his 2015 numbers look especially bad, but we're only talking about a month. Comparing his starts so for this year to his starts from May 2014 shows that he's had months like this before:
|2015 to date||31.2||6.54||5.12||1.42||5.47||6.25|
Pretty similar, right? If two more fly balls had left the stadium last May, he would've been basically the exact same pitcher last month that he has been the first month of this season. We know this kind of performance from Tillman isn't unprecedented, so the question becomes: why is this happening?
There really isn't an obvious answer. When a player consistently struggles at the beginning of the season, it's easy to point to off-season conditioning as a possible cause. But if that was the case, we'd probably be seeing velocity issues. That's not happening - his fastball velocity has actually increased, going from 90.8 MPH in 2014 to 91.5 MPH so far this year. Instead it just seems like Tillman has been having trouble hitting his spots. His walk rate has skyrocketed, and the high HR/9 could be caused by throwing more mistake pitches.
It's hard to say why exactly Tillman is making more mistakes and struggling with his command - I'll leave that to someone better with scouting than I am. But what we do know is that Tillman has been through this before, and bounced back in a major way. If his ERA is still above 6 in a month or two, it may be time to worry. But until then, it's better to assume that Tillman is just working through the same early-season issues that have plagued him in previous years. At this point, he's earned the benefit of the doubt.