This past February, the Orioles found themselves just days away from their first Spring Training games despite only fielding 60% of a major league starting rotation. When they wound up adding Chris Tillman to an incentive-laden contract with a guarantee of only $3 million, it seemed to be a no-lose scenario. The Orioles, at the very least, needed two more arms to fill out their starting staff.
So yeah, Tillman had been pretty terrible following his shoulder injury towards the end the 2016 season. And yes, he was fresh off of a 2017 season in which he racked up an unsightly ERA of 7.84, but baseball is full of comeback stories every year. A cheap deal to give a familiar face a shot to redeem himself in a rotation that needed arms, why not? What could go wrong? Well so far, pretty much everything.
It hasn’t been pretty
Fangraphs went into full detail last June documenting Tillman’s struggles, and since the article was published, it hasn’t gotten any better. If anything, his performances have gotten worse. As velocities increased league-wide in 2017 due to changes in how they record pitches, Tillman’s average fastball velocity decreased from 92.9 mph in 2016 to 91.2 mph in 2017. This year, it is all the way down to 89.9 mph.
Throughout baseball history, there have been countless pitchers who have remained successful despite losing some ticks in velocity as they have aged. Heck, the same Bartolo Colon that came into the league occasionally touching 100 mph with the heater just took a no-hitter into the 8th inning on Sunday night while working in the upper 80’s. Velocity dips have been mitigated by pitchers before, but Tillman’s problem is deeper. He simply can’t miss bats.
Take a look at these heat maps from Fangraphs showing Tillman’s swing percentages and contact percentages from his 2014 season.
In 2014, batters swung at Tillman’s pitches in the zone 69.2% of the time (Z-Swing%), and at 25.8% of the balls out of the strike zone (O-Swing%). Both were slightly below league average for opposing batters, which isn’t that surprising given that Chris Tillman was largely a contact pitcher that didn’t rely on the strikeout. He only struck out 6.5 batters per 9 innings pitched in 2014.
He may not have had gaudy numbers, but Tillman was at least able to get some swings and misses when necessary. The righty generated whiffs on balls in the strikezone at a rate of 11.1% in 2014. Once again a notch below league average, but nothing terrible. When combined with his abilities at controlling opposing runners on the base paths and limiting hard contact rates to under 30%, Tillman was able to finish the year with an ERA of only 3.34.
Don’t count on that happening again anytime soon, if ever. Take a look at Tillman’s 2018 heat maps below in comparison to those from 2014.
Tillman’s swing percentages within the zone are marginally higher, but holy hell, just look at those contact percentages. I think Orioles batting practice may include more swings and misses in the zone than opposing batters facing off against Chris Tillman in 2018.
The sample size is still fairly small after only three starts, but batters are swinging at 74.2% of pitches inside the strike zone, an increase of 5% versus his 2014 season. They’re also swinging at 2.4% fewer pitches that are outside of the zone. As pointed out in the Fangraphs article last June, opposing batters essentially have the plate discipline of Joey Votto when Chris Tillman is on the mound. Considering Votto is the active leader in OBP, that’s pretty much the worst comparison possible.
When opposing batters are inevitably swinging away at Tillman’s pitches inside the zone, they are not missing. And I mean, at all. Through three starts, opposing batters are making contact on 97% of their swings when Tillman throws a strike. That’s three swings and misses on strikes total through three starts. One per start. Once again, not good.
To make matters worse, when opposing batters are making contact on 72% of the strikes that Tillman throws, they are hitting the ball with authority. Tillman’s hard contact rate of 37.3% is nearly identical to his 2017 rate, and his soft contact rate is way down.
Shown below is a full comparison summarizing Tillman’s advanced stats from his two most recent successful years, 2014 and 2016, and then whatever adjective you’d use to label his 2017 and 2018 seasons.
The data presents a clear division between Tillman’s performances before and after his shoulder injury. Opposing hitters are swinging at fewer balls outside the strike zone, while swinging at more balls within the strike zone. And when they are swinging at those balls in the zone, they are making Tillman pay.
The Orioles took a $3 million dollar chance on Tillman, but his 2017 season was no fluke. There’s a reason that shoulder injuries are usually death sentences for pitchers, and probably a similar one for why the Orioles were the only team to offer Tillman a major league deal.
The Orioles still need a replacement
The upper levels of the farm system may be lacking pitching prospects, but if the Orioles are trying to win baseball games, it’s time to end the Tillman reclamation project. They clearly know it’s in their best interest not to have him pitch every five games, considering they’ve already used yesterday’s rain out to skip his next start.
At this point, even Mike Wright would represent an improvement over Chris Tillman. While it is in no way a testament to Wright’s performances thus far in 2018, he still has an ERA in the single digits. His FIP of 4.38 actually ranks second on the team among starters early on and suggests he’s been a victim of some bad luck.
In reality, I’d like to see Castro stretched back out and turned into a starter. And if not him, maybe someone like David Hess or Yefry Ramirez. But for Pete’s sake Orioles, please stop sending Chris Tillman to the mound to start games if you’re actively trying to win them.
Going back to last May, over a span of 26 games and 21 starts, Tillman has amassed a grand total of zero wins. And if anyone out there for whatever reason still wants to argue that wins are a meaningless stat for starting pitchers, here are some other ones.
Over this span of nearly 100 innings, Tillman has pitched to an ERA of 8.69, and allowed an OPS of 1.034. An OPS of 1.034 for an offensive player would have ranked third in the MLB last season, just three thousandths of a point above, once again, Joey Votto.