Tillman’s overall stats don’t suggest a drastic change between 2016 and the rest of this four year sample. His strikeout rate at 19.2% was higher than every other year except for 2013, while his walk rate at 9.2% was the highest in the four year sample. Still, his K-BB% suggested a small improvement over 2014 and 2015 but not as good as he did in 2013. However, my model that I use to predict walk and strikeout rate seems to think that Tillman should have given up more walks and fewer strikeouts in 2016, and paints a consistent picture of decreased performance of strikeout and walk rate over the past four years. In fact, it suggests that Tillman has just about reached the end of his effective life as a major league starter. But it is unquestionable that Tillman’s increased strikeout rate was a reason for his improvement in 2016.
His 2016 OPS allowed on balls put into play was .838 or roughly the equivalent of his rate in 2013 (.869) and 2015 (.847). His 2014 rate of .751 is the clear outlier and was sparked by his BABIP of .268. It seems pretty clear that his 2016 season was considerably closer to his 2015 numbers than his 2014 numbers. It also suggests that Tillman was successful in 2014 in part due to a low BABIP, which he hasn’t been able to replicate in 2013, 2015 or 2016.
Looking at his results with men on the base paths goes a long way to explaining Tillman’s success this season. When batters put the ball into play against him with nobody on base, they had a .898 OPS against him in 2016. This was the worst he’s done in his entire career.
However, with one man on base, batters putting the ball into play against Tillman only had a .760 OPS. That was the lowest allowed result in the four year sample. He gave up a high home run rate, but made up for it with a .233 BABIP.
Likewise, with two or more men on base, Tillman allowed batters putting the ball into play against him to put up only a .728 OPS, which is the second lowest of the four year sample. It’s reasonably close to his numbers in 2014, when opposing batters hit only .717 against him. But it’s far superior to his numbers in 2013 and 2015 when opposing batters had an OPS of roughly .870 in those situations. It would seem that part of the reason why he’s done so well is because he got a significant amount of luck with runners on the base paths. Not giving up a home run in those situations sure helped.
Indeed, in the three years that Tillman has been successful, he’s had an 81%, 76.7% and 77.2% LOB% but in 2015 he had a 68.2% LOB%. His best chance of being successful is if his defense can rally behind him and make sure that he strands a lot of runners.
Going forward, I think there are two ways to look at Tillman. The first way is to call him a proven winner because he’s gone 56-30 the past four years and has won at least ten games each season. Some may argue that the Orioles should keep him because he’s ultimately won the past three of four years and that’s all that matters. A number of teams would be interested in adding a pitcher with these stats.
The second way to look at him is to call him an overachiever that has been a bit more fortunate than his stuff suggests and is due for a collapse. If so, the Orioles certainly shouldn’t extend him and should even consider trading him this offseason. There is limited talent available via free agency this offseason and the Orioles may be able to convince a team to significantly overpay for a pitcher with a strong track record.
With an almost maxed-out budget, I’d lean towards the second route. I question whether Tillman can be effective and the Orioles already have six starters. Tillman is almost definitely one of the best starters that the Orioles have, but if he regresses then he won’t be able to help the club much. For a small market club, paying big bucks to Jimenez, Miley and Gallardo have consequences. The Orioles will need to find a way to save money somewhere if they’re going to fill their holes at corner outfield and catcher and trading away one of their six starters would help.
I don’t think that Tillman really improved much from 2015 to 2016 and suspect that his comeback year in 2016 is largely due to luck. Given the Orioles crowded rotation situation and their lack of resources, I’d look into trading Tillman to the Royals. The Royals need another starter and will have a number of high-profile players become free agents next year. Given their situation, they should be willing to trade prospects for the best starting pitcher they can get and I suspect that they’d be interested in adding a pitcher with Tillman’s traditional statistics.