09 July 2013

Chris Tillman: Limiting the Damage of the Long Ball

As we look ahead to the second half of the season, the Orioles find themselves in the midst of a packed American League playoff race, sitting within striking distance of the top of the AL East while also 1 game back of the second wild card spot.  Their success in the first half of the season has been mainly due to their offense, which has scored the 5th most runs in all of baseball.  But as good as the offense has been, the pitching has been equally terrible.  Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, Baltimore’s pitching staff ranks 22nd in Runs Allowed (401), 27th in ERA (4.35), and 29th FIP (4.58). While most of the blame can be put on the starting rotation, the lock down bullpen of 2012 has regressed badly in 2013, as detailed previously on CamdenDepot.

However, one of the bright spots for Baltimore’s rotation this year has been Chris Tillman.  After ineffectiveness forced him to the minor leagues in both 2010 and 2011, Tillman returned to the major league rotation in the second half of the 2012 season, going 9-3, with a 2.93 ERA in 86 innings pitched.  Tillman has carried over that success to 2013, sporting a 10-3 record with a 3.92 ERA in over 105 innings.  While he hasn’t been an ace, he has no doubt been one of Baltimore’s most dependable starting pitchers, in a season where the team is desperate for dependable starting pitchers. 

One thing Tillman has struggled with so far though has been giving up the long ball.  He currently sits in a tie for 5th most home runs allowed with 18, along with the 9th highest HR/FB rate at 15.0%. Despite giving up 18 home runs on the season, Tillman has been able to do is limit their damage.  Only 4 of those home runs have come with a man on base (additionally, he has only given up one 3-run home run and no grand slams in his career).  This isn’t new, as Tillman has demonstrated the ability to limit the damage of home runs he gives up throughout his career, as seen in the table below.  

As you can see in both 2013 and his career overall, Tillman is much less prone to giving up home runs when pitching out of the stretch as opposed to pitching out of the wind up.  In 2013, the average HR/9 for starting pitchers is 1.05, while the average HR/FB ratio for starting pitchers has been 11.3%.  For some reason, Tillman has the ability to transform himself from being homer prone out of the wind-up with the bases empty, to better than league average in home runs allowed out of the stretch when runners are on base.

Batters hit for the most power on pitches thrown over the plate, in the upper part of the strikezone.  Sometimes these pitches are mistakes, but often these locations are a result of pitchers challenging the batters with fastballs.  The higher the velocity of a pitch up in the zone, the more difficult it will be for the batter to get on top of the pitch and drive it.  As the velocity of fastballs up in the zone decreases, more and more hitters will be able to drive that pitch out of the park.  The figure below shows the Isolated Power of all MLB batters in the 2013 season from fastballs.

Tillman’s fastball is nothing special.  According to Pitch F/X, his average fastball in 2013 sits at 91.7 mph, just higher than the 91.5 mph league average.  With roughly a league average fastball, Tillman should challenge hitters up in the zone with his fastball, but he should do it sparingly.  A look at his fastball frequency by location (in 2013) shows the difference in his strategy while pitching with the bases empty versus with men on base. 

As you can tell, Tillman has been much less likely to challenge hitters up in the zone using fastballs with men on base, and that has been a big reason why so many of the home runs he’s given up have been limited to solo shots.  Tillman also appears to throw the fastball outside of the strikezone more often with men on base, possibly taking advantage of the increased aggressiveness of a hitter trying to drive in runs.  Mechanically, pitching out of the stretch will simplify a pitcher’s motion, allowing them to repeat their delivery from pitch to pitch.  With this in mind, pitching out of the stretch may also allow Tillman to better locate his fastball, producing fewer location mistakes up in the zone.

By reducing the number of times he challenges hitters with runners on base, Chris Tillman has been able to limit the damage of the home runs he gives up.  As a flyball pitcher (39% FB% compared to a league average 34.6% FB%) pitching the majority of his games at Camden Yards (one of the best ballparks to hit home runs over the past decade according to park factors), Tillman may even want to increase the use of that strategy when the bases are empty.  This is especially true if his fastball velocity remains around league average, or dips below 90 mph, as it did when he struggled badly in 2010.  The Orioles find themselves in a good position to make a playoff run as we approach the All-Star break.  For them to be successful, they need Chris Tillman to continue pitching well by keeping the ball down in the zone (and in the park), especially with men on base.


Matt P said...

Those fly balls with no one on base turn into line drives with people on base. How many singles and doubles are worth a solo home run?

Just doing some back of the napkin calculations, he's given up 14 HRs against 269 batters faced with no one on (5.2%) and 4 HRs against 174batters with someone on (2.3%).

If he threw the same way with guys on base and with guys not on base, he'd probably give up 8 fewer home runs. He'd also probably allow another 11 non home runs hits or so (his OBP is worse with guys on base then with the bases empty). So, he'd probably save 4 or 5 runs per 60 innings. Comes out to about a third of a run per nine innings.

But the other thing is that he averages 4.3 pitches per batter with the bases empty. He averages 4pitches per batter with a batter on the base. The difference between throwing to 25 batters per outing and 23 could be the difference between going 6 and going 5 and a third.

Triple R said...

Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that HR/FB% was out of the pitcher's control, and therefore should be fairly even across all splits.

Matt P said...

Some people thought at one point that HR/FB should be expected to be around 10.6%.

Now, the consensus is that HR/FB is mostly luck but there are certain things a pitcher can do to prevent home runs.

The most obvious one is to not play in Colorado. If you can pitch in Oakland, Seattle or San Diego then that's a great plan. In addition, terrible/raw pitchers simply give up more home runs. If you throw a HiA pitcher out there then major league hitting is going to hit a lot of homers against him. You'd also expect his BABIP to be over .300 due to a high line drive rate.

More seriously, another one is simply not throwing fastballs high in the zone.

Honestly though, it could be that the difference in HR/FB% is nothing more then luck and what Tillman is really controlling is his FB%. The way he's pitching could turn fly balls into line drives. That's one way to avoid a three run home run.

Triple R said...

While the best thing a pitcher can do to prevent home runs is, as you said, not pitch in Colorado, one of the next best options is to not pitch in Camden--my point being that any pitcher for the Orioles will have an elevated HR/FB rate, and therefore give up more home runs as a whole (especially if they're fly ball pitchers like Tillman).

With that said, Tillman's HR/FB rate, at 15.0%, is certainly elevated, and he's still managed to pitch his way to a decent 3.92 ERA--and is on pace for 3+ rWAR. So perhaps the ends justify the means.

Unknown said...

Pitching in Camden doesn't help as the Orioles are worst in the league in home runs allowed and 29th in HR/FB ratio. Interestingly enough, both the Mariners (27th) and the Padres (24th) are in the bottom 10 for HR/FB ratio. And the Rockies are 4th best (which I find surprising). Parks definitely play a factor, but I think the quality of a pitching staff is more important.

As for Tillman, he has had a huge home/road split for home runs this year (14 at home, 4 on the road), but only one more home run allowed at home versus on the road during his career. Despite the home runs, if Tillman can continue pitching the way he is, I think the Orioles will take it.

Appreciate the discussion.