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A Birdland Salute to Chris Tillman

Chris Tillman was good for the Orioles for a long time. He stopped being good and they released him, but we’re only here to remember the good times today.

Cleveland Indians v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Part of the Orioles success from 2012-2016 is that a lot of the team was able to stay the same, with many of their strong performers remaining around. The starting rotation was not so stable through that whole era, with one notable exception: Chris Tillman, whose slide into ineffectiveness the O’s could ignore no longer as they designated him for assignment recently. Tillman declined to go pitch for Triple-A Norfolk and is officially an Oriole no more.

Tillman came to us from Seattle, the pitching headliner of that same Erik Bedard deal that brought Adam Jones to Baltimore, and it didn’t take him long in the O’s minors to show why, with a strong 2008 season for Double-A Bowie rocketing Tillman as high as the #17 prospect in MLB by Baseball Prospectus prior to the 2009 season.

We know with the benefit of hindsight that Tillman and the rest of “the cavalry” were not ready to save the Orioles immediately. Only Tillman was ever good as a starter for the O’s and as we also know, it took a while to get there.

Did they rush him when they called him up in 2009 at age 21? Maybe, but he was dominating Triple-A and they might have felt he had nothing else to learn. Were the pitching coaches of the era clueless as to how to get the most out of these talented arms? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, it took until 2012 - his fourth partial season in the big leagues - for Tillman to find success.

Tillman’s Fourth of July debut in 2012, where he allowed just two unearned runs across 8.1 innings, was another one of those moments in that special season where you couldn’t help but think, “Maybe something different is happening here.”

For Tillman, just like the rest of the Orioles, something different WAS happening. He was finally good! From that day on, the O’s were 10-5 in games started by Tillman as he went on to post a 2.93 ERA. Tillman was one of the many reasons that the O’s were able to go 50-32 starting on July 4 to get back into the postseason for the first time since 1997. It was a fun year.

In each of the next two seasons, Tillman tossed over 200 innings and from 2012-16 combined he had a 3.81 ERA across 844 innings. As the Orioles struggle to even find a starting pitcher who can get his ERA under 4, that’s something to look back on with a wistful sigh. Even with a hiccup in 2015, his numbers over that whole stretch are impressive. The Orioles needed him to be good and he was.

What made Tillman all the more interesting is that he was almost the embodiment of that good era of the Orioles. I think we all encountered and were frustrated by those in the baseball commentating class who simply refused to believe in the sustainability of the Orioles success from 2012-16. Those people did not believe it was “real” because what they believe they know about baseball told them that such success was unlikely or impossible.

As a starting pitcher who lacked the gaudy strikeout totals of his Cy Young-winning peers, Tillman was perpetually discounted in the press as well. His walk rate was neither excessive nor low enough to mark him a pinpoint control artist. He was a fly ball pitcher whose home games were pitched at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and he avoided disaster for a long time. Perhaps it was Orioles Magic.

Picking out one signature Tillman moment is tough because the guy never betrayed any emotion out there. The most you would ever be likely to get out of him is one little fist pump, usually accompanied by a couple of open-mouth chews of his gum. You can see a bit of this in one of his greatest games as an Oriole, Game 1 of the 2014 ALDS against the Tigers:

In these highlights, he strikes out the side in the first inning and barely reacts. That’s Tillman for you. Even now, I can’t believe that the Orioles won that game and swept that series. Tillman starting against Max Scherzer in the playoffs, with Tillman facing a lineup that had Miguel Cabrera and Victor and J.D. Martinez? Of course the Orioles weren’t going to win that game. But they did. That year was a lot of fun.

The whole 2012-16 era was fun. Tillman’s abrupt decline was a big contributing factor in why the team’s fortunes are what they are right now. He was an important part of their success and without his best self it has been that much harder to field a quality team.

Tillman was traded here. He pitched. He is Birdland.

Tillman’s departure along with the other moves of the last week have left the Orioles with just six members of the 2014 AL East-winning squad still around, and only four remain from the 2012 wild card winners.