The O’s are now in sole possession of first place in the American League East, and they’ve somehow managed to do it with a starting rotation that’s been one of the worst in the league. Tyler Wilson pitched the best game of his short MLB career last night, but prior to yesterday’s game Orioles starters had a 4.89 ERA, tied for 4th worst in all of baseball.
It’s not hard to figure out why the O’s have been able to withstand such a brutal performance from their starting rotation - they’re been great at almost everything else. They’ve hit the most home runs in the league and have scored the 8th most runs overall. The bullpen has the 2nd best ERA in baseball.
A powerful offense and shutdown bullpen can go a long way to cover up the shortcomings of a bad rotation, but there’s another massive reason why the Birds have been able to make it work: Chris Tillman.
After a terrible 2015 season in which he posted a career-high 4.99 ERA, Tillman has bounced back in a major way. He’s 9-1 with a 2.87 ERA, fifth among qualified AL starters. Not only is he pitching well, he’s getting deeper into games, lengthening his average start by over a half inning and averaging over six innings per start for only the second time in his career.
It’s hard to overstate how huge this has been for the Orioles. Non-Tillman starters have combined for a 5.54 ERA in 50 starts, averaging just over five innings per start in those games. Not only have they allowed a ton of runs and put the team in a hole early, they’ve taxed a bullpen that needs to be fresh down the stretch, especially with Darren O’Day battling a hamstring injury.
Let’s imagine a scenario where Tillman didn’t bounce back from last season. A 4.99 ERA from Tillman this year would put the staff ERA at a hideous 5.40, worse than every team except the Twins, who are basically a triple-A team wearing Major League uniforms.
Not only that, the bullpen would have been overworked even more than they have been. Two of the team’s most important relievers, Brad Brach and Mychal Givens, are both on pace to throw more innings this year than any other year of their professional careers, and that’s with the good Tillman pitching every fifth day.
Looking at WAR, Manny Machado has been the most valuable Oriole in 2016. It’s hard to argue with that, considering he’s one of the best players on the planet. But Chris Tillman is right on his heels, and he’s contributed to the team in ways that a stat like WAR just doesn’t measure.
Tillman isn’t just valuable to the O’s on the days he pitches; his value is also felt the next day when the team has a fresher bullpen after his latest 7-inning outing.
The O’s are now 11 games over .500, and in games started by Tillman they're 12-2. It’s hard to overstate the impact his bounce-back season has had on the 2016 Orioles. Tillman deserves a spot on the All-Star team, and he deserves consideration for the most valuable Oriole so far this year.
On a team that includes Manny Machado, even being in that conversation is impressive, but Tillman has pitched his way into that discussion. He’ll be critical to the Orioles’ chances of making a playoff run in 2016.