05 July 2012

Scouting the Birds: Chris Tillman 2012 Debut

History with Tillman
It has been a long road for Camden Depot with Tillman, so we wanted to take a few paragraphs to highlight the last four years we've spent covering and evaluating Chris before we jump into a review of his 2012 debut.  Feel free to skip down to the "scouty" report at any time.

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Camden Depot has been an unabashed supporter of Tillman for sometime. Our history in evaluating Chris has been interesting in that we've found ourselves on the opposite side of "mainstream" fan opinion dating back to pre-Bedard trade talks.  Essentially, our view of Tillman has, rightly or wrongly, stayed the same throughout the last four years, meaning at the height of his popularity in prospecting circles we were seen as "too light" on him, and at the depths of his struggles we were seen as "too high" on him.

At the time of the Bedard trade, much of the Orioles blogging world, and message board world, was consumed with names like Carlos Triunfel and Jeff Clement as the "second piece" behind what everyone was sure would be the crown jewel -- Adam Jones.  Our take on Jones at the top was similar -- after all he made the most sense as a young, highly-touted and high-ceilinged prospect already breaking into the Bigs with an impressive pedigree to back up the scout card. 

After Jones, however, we posited that Chris Tillman would be, and should be, the second target in the transaction, and even pointed out that Andy MacPhail's reported insistence that Brandon Morrow be included in the deal (never going to happen) was primarily a negotiating tactic to allow Baltimore to "fall back" on Tillman.  At the time, Tillman was still just a projectable arm at A-Advanced High Desert, showing flashes of promise but often being burned by the hitter friendly environment in the California League and his inability to yet command his stuff.  It turns out that we saw the same thing Baltimore saw -- a prototypical pitcher's body with an easy motion and a chance to grow into front-end stuff.

The other names we threw into the package were Tony Butler and Mario Martinez, who we viewed as comparable to Triunfel but without the bloated "prospect ranking" value -- both are currently struggling to advance up the ladder, sitting in A-Adv. High Desert as 22- and 23-year olds, respectively. The actual trade, of course, involved Jones, Tillman, George Sherrill, Butler and Kam Mickolio -- hey, three out of five ain't too shabby.

Upon coming over, Tillman dazzled in Double-A for Baltimore and was labeled by many (including Baseball America) as a potential rotation headliner for the O's, and their top pitching prospect. Message boards were sky high on Tillman and we took some minor grief for giving the nod to Matusz, who we believed had a slightly better overall arsenal and much better command (that general opinion remains, and we would love to see the O's fans jumping back on the Tillman train to keep in mind Chris's developmental curve when they are trampling upon Matusz's potential on the message boards and blogs).

Chris had up-and-down showings during partial years with the Birds in 2010 and 2011, showing some inconsistencies in his mechanics and the effects of developmental tweaking "in progress" at both the Major League level and at Triple-A.  Our take remained largely the same, mostly because the raw material was still there for Tillman to be what we always considered his to be -- a potential number two starter, with a good chance of fitting in as a good mid-rotation arm. 

Last spring my updated filed report on Tillman contained an OFP of 57 with a 54-59 range. Essentially, I was very confident Tillman had the goods to deliver number three starter production and a shot at developing into a true number two.  The grade was slightly ahead of what we filed for Zach Britton, which obviously was met with skepticism from various readers and message boards.

Our biggest gripe with Tillman as of the end of 2011? He wasn't making use of his potential physicality and, likely tied to the lack of physicality, he wasn't maintaining his mechanics.  The motion and arm action was always easy, but Tillman had yet to tighten everything up, so the arm action, temp and release had not found a steady fit. 

The result was inconsistent stuff that didn't generally hold-up through the course of a game.  Tillman's velocity hadn't taken the expected step forward.  Tillman's curve and change-up, however, were still flashing plus, and he still had an ability to be a mid-rotation starter even with an average fastball.  It was a different Tillman than I expected to see develop, but not necessarily a worse Chris Tillman if he could find more consistency.

Tillman worked with Brady Anderson this off-season to improve his strength and stamina, both to improve his overall explosiveness and to better equip him to endure the long Major League season.  This spring, Baltimore (wisely, I think) started Tillman back in Norfolk and worked to simplify things, mechanically.  Last night Orioles fans were treated to the "new" Chris Tillman, who is really just the old Chris Tillman with a slightly more compact delivery, believe it or not.

We will get into the details below, but as we do so let's all keep in mind a couple of things: 1) pitching prospects rarely develop on a linear path, meaning Tillman's "ups and downs" are more common than uncommon among even high-level pitching prospects, and 2) a good start does not set a new baseline for expected performance, it simply gives you a positive data point to add to your overall evaluation of a young baseball player. 

On to some quick notes on last night....

Scouting Tillman: Short form report
July 4, 2012 (at Seattle Mariners)

Velo Chart (short form):
Pitch (AVG/Max)
FB (95/97)
CU (77/79)
CH (83/84)
CT (90/92)
SL (83/85)

Fastball:  55/60
Curve:  55
Change-up:  55/60
Cutter: 50/55
Slider: 45/50
Control/Command: 50
Feel:  55

"Scouty" report:
The biggest area of growth for Tillman over the past 18 months has been the simplification of his step in and arm circle.  The result has been a better tempo, more consistent release, better arm speed and a slight improvement in command (though the command is still a work in progress).  Tillman has completed a conversion to a phone booth motion (meaning he is compact enough to perform his step-in and leg kick inside a phone booth) and has paired that with a simplified drop on the backside of his arm action. 

In the past, Tillman has had a little more rock to his motion and more swing in his arm, which had the duel impact of flashing the ball on the backside (which can give hitters a look at your grip) and creating an inconsistent path from the backside to release, throwing off command and consistency of stuff.  This spring, both in camp and at Norfolk, Tillman showcased his more compact delivery and immediately saw the benefits through an increase in arm speed and a bump in velo (about four miles per hour higher, on average, than 2011). 

The other benefit of his simplified drop, or soft stab, on the back side is that he is shielding the ball much better from hitters, creating deception in his secondaries which almost assuredly will result in more swings and misses from MLB hitters.  That helps the secondary stuff but also causes the hitters to perceive a more explosive fastball.

His arsenal was largely what we have seen in the past with a couple of positive developments.  First and foremost, the import of the velocity bump cannot be understated.  Tillman, at his best, can utilize plus off-speed and breaking stuff down to help his fastball miss bats up.  The increased velocity will allow him to be more aggressive in all parts of the zone. 

The secondary stuff, as discussed above, benefited from an increase in deception.  It was also a little more consistent than Tillman has historically shown at the Major League level (though he has flashed plus stuff throughout his limited career). The change is, at its best, a plus pitch with hard fade. The curve is a 12-to-6 hammer at its best, and he got on top of it with a little more frequency last night than he has in the past. It wasn't any better than it had previously shown, but it was more consistent, and he showed comfort with it as both a drop-in pitch and a bury pitch.

It is a packaged deal, fastball and secondaries (one reason why I still am not certain why people mention "pitch values", a FanGraphs stat, individually as some sort of gauge for evaluating overall pitching performance).  Last night Tillman showed how dramatically slight improvements across the board can help all aspects of a pitcher's performance.

More deception and more consistency led to secondaries that were better executed and more consistently "there" for him when he wanted them. It also meant hitters were less able to sit fastball.  Increased velocity (while maintaining his almost always solid velo delta between the fastball and change-up) meant hitters had to be teed up for a true above-average to plus heater, increasing the odds in Tillman's favor when he decided to drop an off-speed or breaker.

Tillman hit his spots often enough to overmatch Seattle -- an offense with limited punch.  It is unlikely his line would have been quite as eye-popping against a more dangerous nine, and that is important to understand and keep in mind when revelling in last night's box score.  It was a very nice step forward, but not a signal that Tillman has "arrived". There is work to be done in his ability to spot his stuff, and that will be highly important in determining whether Tillman ultimately settles in as a dependable mid-rotation arm, a shut down number two, or somewhere in between. 

The good news is that a more consistent execution of his pitches will give him and Wieters a broader set of strategies to implement, and we should see an increase in changes and curves called by this duo as we progress through 2012.

The bottom line? It was a nice first step for Tillman at the Major League level in 2012.  It was not the performance of an ace, but it was more evidence that the front-end stuff we have always seen in there could manifest more regularly, and be implemented more effectively, moving forward. He still does not project as a plus command arm, but he can be better than average in spurts, and more importantly he has the look and feel of someone more confident in his stuff than he has ever been.

Once the Orioles return from the break, we will provide an in-depth breakdown of Tillman against either the Tigers or Twins.  There is much more to say than we've covered in the brief summary here.

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