17 May 2014

Breaking Down Chris Tillman's First Career Shutout

This post was written by Zach Mariner. Follow him on Twitter.

Chris Tillman threw his first career shutout Friday night, limiting the Kansas City Royals to five hits and one walk while striking out three in a 4-0 Orioles victory. It was a much-needed outing from Tillman, who was 1-1 with a 6.75 ERA in his last four starts after starting the season 2-1 with a 1.71 ERA in his first four starts. However, the 26-year-old right-hander wasn’t necessarily dominant. He threw 77 of his 117 pitches for strikes, but induced just four whiffs the entire night, three of which accounted for his only strikeouts of the game.

Tillman’s career whiff percentage is 7.3%, the exact same number he posted through his first eight starts in 2014, which ranked him 86th out of 107 qualifying pitchers coming into Friday night’s game. That being said, the fact that he only got four swinging strikes in a 117-pitch outing shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, especially considering the fact that Kansas City’s 6.9% total whiff percentage is the best mark in the majors.

So what exactly did Tillman do so well that enabled him to go a full nine innings for the first time in his career? For starters, he limited his pitch count in the early going by being aggressive in the strike zone. He threw just 44 pitches through the first four innings, and threw a first-pitch strike to 10 of the 14 batters he faced during that time span. Opposing hitters have a .275/.389/.438 line against Tillman in 2014 when they get ahead 1-0. But when Tillman throws a first-pitch strike, those numbers drop to .208/.248/.313. Also notable, the 44 pitches through four innings was a season best (he threw 52 against Detroit on April 6). Through his first eight starts, he needed an average of exactly 75 pitches to get through four innings.

One of the biggest reasons he hasn't been able to go deep into games thus far in 2014 -- just three of his nine starts have gone more than six innings -- is his trouble with high pitch counts, which has been a problem since he was brought up to the big leagues in 2009. Tillman has only allowed more than three earned runs in one of his nine starts, but the high pitch counts have limited his production and innings thus far.

His fastball velocity averaged out at 91.2 MPH. If you read Jon’s post on Friday, you know that he came to the soft conclusion that Tillman tends to challenge hitters when he’s hitting 92.5 MPH consistently, something he did only once on Friday. That being said, his aggressiveness in the strike zone despite having overpowering velocity most likely means that Tillman believed his stuff was still good enough to overpower a Kansas City team that ranks 25th in the majors in wOBA (.299) and dead last in home runs (18).

His pitch distribution against the Royals really wasn’t all that different than it has been thus far in 2014, with one exception -- according to data from BrooksBaseball.net, Tillman used a slider on Friday night that he had never thrown before in his career, at least not according to their data. The slider averaged 86.5 MPH, topping out at 87.9 MPH -- Tillman used it 10 times, according to BrooksBaseball.net and MLB.com Gameday. On paper, it appears slightly similar to his cutter (which he uses sparingly -- less than 10% of the time over the course of his career). As you can see, it’s about 3.6 MPH slower than his cutter, with a lot less V-break -- but the H-break number is about the same.

The table above is solely representative of Tillman’s outing on Friday night. Below, you’ll find a graph of his pitch usage throughout his career (excluding the Friday night start, which had not yet been included in the statistics used for the table below).

Interestingly enough, there is no slider to be found.

I went back and watched the game film to see if Jim Hunter and Jim Palmer had anything to say about the particular pitch Tillman was throwing. The first time he threw it (on the Salvador Perez lineout to second in the first inning), Palmer referred to it as “the little cut fastball. It’s like a slider, a cutter.” The second time he threw it, he got a called strike against Billy Butler in the top of the second inning. Hunter immediately sounded surprised when he said, “Breaking ball for a strike.” Jim Palmer replied, “Yeah, a little slider.”

Then, on his 116th pitch of the night, Tillman got Butler to swing through the slider for his fourth and final swinging strike of the night. Palmer once again commented, saying “Right there, a little slider he’s used tonight…more than he has in his last couple of games.”

I’m not a pitch tracking expert, and don’t know enough to definitively say whether or not what Tillman was throwing was a slider, cutter, or something in between. But that might be something to keep an eye on going forward. As for whether or not we can expect to see more of this from Tillman in the weeks and months to come, I think that’s still a mystery. As Jon pointed out in that post from Friday, Tillman's ever-decreasing velocity is a concern -- one that should and will be monitored closely. Logic says that Tillman is an average pitcher when he doesn’t have his best stuff, but he seems to have proved otherwise against Kansas City. Then again, he was pitching against Kansas City.

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