Chris Tillman has been a stalwart of the Orioles rotation since mid-2012. He has started three straight opening days. He is ostensibly the Orioles ace because no else is there to claim the mantle. Largely, he has been the same pitcher over the course of his Orioles career. A mid 90s four seam fastball, with a overhand curve ball, and a change up all with decent command and enough effectiveness to get the job done.
Until 2015, it all worked for for Tillman as he posted ERAs of 2.93, 3.71, and 3.34. All better than league average. But, then came 2015 in which he posted a 4.99 ERA in 31 starts. Coming into 2016, the Orioles badly needed a bounce back in results from Chris Tillman and he has responded to that need by attempting to reinvent himself.
I wrote in last August that Tillman had begun to add in a sinker to his arsenal. This sinker helped him to increase his ground ball rate to 46.1 percent, way above his 39.4 percent career average. Thus far in 2016, the sinker usage has maintained, the ground balls have not followed thus far, but it is still too early to take anything definite away from his current ground ball rate.
However, this year, Tillman has also begun to feature his cutter or at least the Pitch F/x system reads it as a cutter. Tillman may call it something different, but for our purposes here we will call it a cutter.
Pre-2015, the Tillman arsenal consisted of around 62 percent fastballs, 17 percent curve balls, 14 percent change ups, and 5 percent cutters.In 2015 he began to fold in the sinker. To date in 2016 it is now roughly 37 percent fastballs, 17 percent sinkers, 15 percent cutters, 16 percent change ups, and 15 percent curve balls. The graph below shows the change in Tillman's arsenal and how it began in 2015.
The rapid decline in the usage of four seam fastball is readily apparent. An attempt to use some pitches that move more to miss some more bats and induce weaker contact. The change began in July of 2015 and has only hastened since then. The results thus far have been mixed. He posted an ERA of 4.55 in the second half of 2015 and thus far in 2016 has a 3.24 ERA. Interestingly, his FIP is currently 2.73 which is terrific and particularly low for Tillman who has always posted mediocre FIPs.
One reason for his lower FIP is the fact that he is striking out 24.2 percent of batters currently which is way above his career average of 17.1 percent. Furthermore, strike outs are one of the statistics that stabilize early on, so this change could be for real.
The reason Tillman is getting more strikeouts is because he is getting a lot more swings and misses this year than in years past. Right now he is at an 11.8 percent swinging strike rate compared to his career mark of 7.4 percent. Everyone of his pitches has shown an increase in whiff rate thus far, but the leader by a wide margin is the cutter.
Batters have swung and missed on 23.33 percent of Tillman's cutters this year. An incredibly high rate which dominated all of his other pitches. The increase is also noticeable on his fastball and curve ball which the change up and sinker increases are more modest. A possible reason for an increasing whiff rate on fastball and curve balls so far could be his increase in velocity. He is currently averaging 93.75 mph on his fastball which is a career high. In fact all of his pitches have seen an increase in velocity which could be responsible for more swinging strikes and strike outs. Velocity is not the end all be all of pitching, but it certainly helps.
Tillman has gotten great results in 2016 by being a different pitcher. All of the component parts were there before, but now he is pitching unlike he has ever pitched before. The additions of the sinker and cutter to his repertoire add elements he never had before.
While he had decent command of his four seam fastball before, it was still a pretty straight pitch. No movement, no late life. With the sinker and cutter he now has pitches that move. The cutter in particular adds a nice pitch to move in the opposite direction of the change up. Moves away from the right handed hitters and in on the hands of the lefties. This gives Tillman a new weapon and a new way to attack hitters.
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of the sinker. It's still early, but the pitch has not been as effective at getting ground balls as it was last season. A larger sample size is needed to determine if that trend is strong or simply early season noise.
It is hard for pitchers to change. Baseball is a sport of repetition and a veteran like Tillman changing the way he pitches is not done often or to great effect. Yet, Tillman has clearly started to change how he attacks hitters. The addition of a sinker and a cutter alongside an increase in velocity has given Tillman better results in 2016. Time will tell if these changes are a new plan, an early season blip, or--most likely of all something--in the middle.