This season, Chris Tillman seemed like a different guy. In Triple-A, he posted numbers we hadn't seen since 2009; striking out better than a batter an inning while keeping the walks and home runs down (3 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9). When he was brought up to the Majors in July, he showed us why - his first start, he averaged 95 mph with the fastball, while pitching 8.1 innings against the Mariners and striking out 7 (he gave up 2 runs, both unearned). Hope had been rekindled.
Tillman ended up pitching 86 innings for Baltimore, and though he never again touched those Seattle highs, he was effective enough to keep rotation spot while things were constantly in flux for the O's. His 6.9 K/9 was only about average, but it was a career high. And he managed it while walking only 2.5 batters per nine.
Beyond throwing harder again - his fastball averaged a touch over 92 mph - Tillman also showed a more distinct repertoire, with the cutter figuring more prominently and the slider being its own offering. Here are the whiff rates on his pitches:
The fastball was a bit better, but the curve and change regained their prior success.
Tillman once again had a reverse platoon split in 2012; 3.67 xFIP versus lefties, and 5.39 xFIP versus righties. You can see that the improved whiff rates on his off-speed pitches from this, as lefties missed his change-up 31% of the time they swung at it and the curve 33% of the time. That's more like what happened in 2009, then in the previous two years when he could crack 20% against lefties with either pitch, though in 2011 the slider and cutter picked up some of that slack.
For his career, Tillman has actually handles lefties a fair bit better than righties, striking out almost 2 more batters per nine against them (6.9 K/9 vs. 5.2 K/9). Part of that is the change-up, which he used to throw mostly and now throws almost exclusively to left-handed batters, and which is maybe his best pitch - it not only gets swings and misses, but also some groundballs now (it had a 51% groundball rate in 2012). Right-handed batters were much more likely to see the slider and cutter this year, and as those are Tillman's newer (and, likely, worse) pitches, it's not so surprising that he'd be somewhat less effective with them.
That's actually not a terrible sign for his future, I think. If opposing teams don't pick up on this (or if the disparity goes away, as is possible considering we're talking about less than 150 IP against either side), then Tillman might once again get to face more lefties than righties (60% of the batters he faced in 2012 were left-handed; up from 58% in 2011 and 50% in 2010). And further development of the cutter or slider could help him decrease the split - a 3.67 xFIP against lefties is pretty darn good from a right-handed pitcher. Plus, he's (still) only 24 years old.
Going back to the fastball velocity - though it did take a distinct tumble after his 2012 debut, it still averaged 92 mph (and was more like 91-92 late in the year). That isn't as exciting as seeing him touch 98, but can be perfectly serviceable in a Major League rotation when combined with decent control and some quality off-speed pitches (especially if he can hold mid 90s in the tank for when he needs it).
There are certainly some less positive signs; Tillman's 2.93 ERA is largely an illusion created by his .221 BABIP. He is a flyball pitcher and does induce more than his share of pop-ups, so a better than average BABIP isn't unexpected, but certainly nothing near that low. On the flip side to that, as an extreme flyball pitcher (and his 2012 groundball rate was a career low 35%) who doesn't suppress home runs like some of the more successful pitchers of that type have, Tillman can be susceptible to the longball - as his 1.3 HR.9 allowed can attest. Also, despite dropping his walk rate to 2.5 BB/9, he didn't really avoid three-ball counts or get ahead of batter much more than he had previously (a little bit, but not as much as one would think given that his previous career walk rate had been 4 BB/9). So some of the old flaws are still around, at least in part.
Overall, Tillman's 4.34 xFIP is probably more indicative of how well he pitched than his ERA (and his FIP of 4.24 leans much more towards the former). That xFIP is more or less in line with what the Orioles got from their starters overall in 2012, and ranked Tillman behind Hammel and Arrieta, and tied with Chen, but in front of Miguel Gonzalez, Brian Matusz, and various guys I wouldn't expect to starting games for the team in 2013. That probably leaves Tillman with a rotation spot heading into next season, but one that he'll need to maintain or improve upon his 2012 season to hold on to. And for the first time in a while, I have at least some confidence that that's possible.