While Joe Saunders was announced as the game four starter instead of Chris Tillman, who has had a stand out half season, it seemed like a good enough time to take a deeper look at Tillman and try to figure out just what changed from the last two seasons to this year.
Tillman arrived as a key piece in the Bedard trade back in 2008, where he was the 67th overall prospect on Baseball America's list in 2008. Tillman arrived with a lively FB that could reach mid 90's, and a looping hammer curve combo that had scouts drooling. During his first season in the Orioles organization he put up spectacular numbers, often overwhelming opposing batters in AA Bowie (where I saw him a few times) before moving up to AAA for the last half of the season. In AAA, his numbers were even better than in AA and it seemed like the Orioles had a legit future SP on their hands. In 2009, he continued to put up good numbers in AAA before getting the call to the big league club just before the trading deadline and despite a 5.40 ERA in 12 starts, the potential could be seen. Unfortunately this is a trend that would continue on through 2011. Some starts in AAA, some starts in MLB, a stellar start where it looks like he had figured things out, followed by a shellacking where he didn't make it through 4 innings. This was a pattern. That is until 2012, where he began the season in AAA and once again found himself called to the big league club in July, this time however, the results were much different.
In the 2012 regular season Tillman put up a 9-3 record in 15 starts with the Orioles, pitching to a 2.93 ERA and improving many of his peripheral numbers that he has had success with in the minors but could never get them to that level in the majors. Improvements in BB/9 (2.51) and K/9 (6.91) as well as avg allowed (.205) and WHIP (1.05) have led him to a successful season in the majors, and there is even more potential there, as he has had years in the minors with numbers closer to 10 K/9. That begs the question: What has changed?
Two years ago the Orioles scrapped Tillman's long-loopy curve in favor of a more compact power curve that has slightly different tilt, instead of the straight over the top 12-6 break, now it's more of an 11-5. Also at the same time he developed a cutter, which started taking pitches away from his curve and change up. The biggest impact in this down period for Tillman was a 2 mph drop in velocity across the board, which is interesting considering "cutter-gate" this season in reference to Dylan Bundy, his cutter, and the views and opinions of Dan Duquette and Rick Peterson. Between the fastball command problems he's always had, the drop in velocity, and the adjustment of a new pitch, he became very hittable at the ML level.
In 2012, under the watchful eye of Rick Peterson, Tillman gained back the 2 mph he had previously lost in 2010, improved his fastball command, lowering his walk rates, and keeping his home run rates down. Chris also traded in some of the cutters he was throwing for an improved change up, which he now throws considerably harder than the 78 mph offering he had thrown before. Coming in at an average around 84 mph with sharper movement than before, he throws the change about 14% of the time now compared to closer to 10% before. He has always thrown his fastball around 60% of the time, which is why the velocity and command are so important to his success. His ground ball % is actually the lowest of his career this year, and his K% is lower than it has been in the minors at just over 6%, however he's been getting more flyballs that stay in the park, as well as more infield pop ups mostly due to well placed FB and the harder change up. His .205 average against has gone a long way towards his success this season and has laid the ground work for that potential that he has teased for three years to finally be realized. Tillman will be a candidate for the 2013 rotation come spring training, it's up to him to prove himself again and earn it though, since that is the New Oriole Way.