20 February 2018

Chris Tillman is Back and I Feel Fine

The Orioles re-signed Chris Tillman on Monday to a one year contract, guaranteeing him $3 million while offering incentives that could bring the total commitment to $10 million for 2018. This was a widely expected move, given the apparent slowness of Tillman's market and the fact that the Orioles are the only team he has pitched for in the big leagues. Tillman has pitched over 1100 innings for the Orioles since 2011, winning 73 games and acting as the de facto ace of the staff, and given the holes in the rotation, a one year deal for not much money always seemed like an obvious one.

The problem, of course, is that Tillman has struggled for the better part of three seasons. Excluding his excellent first half in 2016, in which he put a 3.41 ERA and struck out nearly 8 batters per 9, Tillman has been mediocre or worse since 2015 began. In fact, in total from 2015 to 2017, he has pitched to a 5.12 ERA, a 4.89 FIP, a 1.454 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, and 3.7 BB/9.

That's...not great. In fact, not great would be an improvement over whatever this is. This is bad. Really, really bad. Since 2015 began, Tillman has the 7th worst ERA , the 9th worst FIP, and the 13th worst WHIP among all qualified starters in baseball. He is also in the bottom 25 starters in fWAR, putting up just 3.2 wins in that time period.

It's easy to write off Tillman's mind-boggling 2017 as injury-related or simply an extreme outlier, but  his decline was not as drastic or dramatic as maybe it seems. One of Tillman's defining traits during the years he was good, or at least solid, was an ability to get of jams. In 2013, 2014, and 2016, he was well above average in strand rate, and not coincidentally had three of his best seasons. Last year, he allowed over a third of his baserunners to score, which, I'm here to tell you, is incredibly bad. 

Maybe this was a fluke, but his stuff may also be in significant decline. In 2015, he threw his fastball 65% of the time. In 2017, it was down to just over 50%. He gave up by far the most hard contact in his career, had his worst strikeout rate, walked an insane 4.94 hitters per 9 innings, and generated the fewest swings at pitches outside of the strike zone in his career. He also got crushed in the strike zone, with hitters making contact with over 90% of pitches in the zone (side note, Andrew Cashner gave up contact on 92% of all swings on pitches in the zone, so that should work out just fine).

But, take a look at this.

Tillman's strikeout, walk, and home run rate were all generally trending in the wrong direction even prior to his disastrous 2017. What immediately seems possible is that Tillman was always a borderline pitcher who leaned on his defense and slightly above average stuff to generate contact and get outs. Once the defense and stuff declined, however, yikes. It is certainly tempting to blame 2017 on the shoulder injury that limited him to under 100 innings pitched, but these numbers indicate that the injury (unless it's been with him for years) is not necessarily the only factor driving the decline. 

All that said, we're talking about $3 million. I think it's unlikely that Tillman's skill erosion is so extreme that he's now the worst pitcher in baseball at age 29, and more likely that 2017 was simply an extremely terrible and unlucky season. If he even "bounces back" to his 2015 numbers, he'll earn that guaranteed money. With Tillman is almost certainly penciled in as the number 4 starter, though, the Orioles are taking a fairly big risk that 2017 was an aberration and not simply the culmination of a longer-term trend. If they somehow end up signing one of the better free agent pitchers left on the board, this move will probably look better overall than it does now. Even if that doesn't happen, though, there's a modicum of upside here, and I'd certainly like to believe Tillman is a better option than, say, Mike Wright. On February 19, with a rotation spot still open, that's about as good as you can hope for.


Unknown said...

I predict, DFA by May 15.

Pip said...

According to Roch, no one else was offering anything but a minor league contract.
Why did the Orioles give a major league contract?
The money is insignificant but the 25-man roster spot certainly is not. And Dan has basically said they are done looking for a frontline starter, which means Tilly is IT.
If he were on a minor league contract there'd be much less pressure in both sides.
I think Tillman is toast and I'm flabbergasted that the vaunted Orioles Doctors think otherwise.
Or maybe they don't and The Powers are ignoring them.
Regardless, Tillman and Cashner are our cavalry.

Jon Shepherd said...

Because an MLB contract got his signature. Usually the team that offers the most, gets the player.

Pip said...

Jon, you missed the point.
No one else was offering more.
A bigger minor league deal should have been sufficient because-wait for it-no one was offering more.
Even if the deals were exactly the same, it is unlikely he would have chosen the tigers over the Orioles for several reasons.
Unless there's considerably more to the story that the company voices are letting on, a major league deal should have been necessary, and having it created unnecessary problems, and makes it unlikely Dan adds anyone else who is better.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

The Orioles offered a major league deal because they wanted Chris Tillman to pitch for them. I don't know how that isn't more clear.

Jon Shepherd said...

That is why you offer more. More to Tillman was that.

Pip said...

Matt, my point is that given what other teams were offering, a major league deal shouldn't have been necessary.
I don't know how that isn't clear.

Pip said...

No snark.
You are repeating yourselves.
Yes, I know Dan gave Tillman a majorly contract because he wanted him to pitch for them. That goes without saying and it's kind of insulting for you to suggest that I'm not aware of that.
You are also completely ignoring what I am saying, which is unproductive.
I have asked why Tillman was given a major-league contract when it does not seem to have been necessary.
Merely repeating," They gave him majorl league contract because they wanted him to pitch for them" isn't very productive and it doesn't respond to my question, which is a reasonable one. It is not a dumb question but you are both treating it as if it is.
All things being equal, it is logical that Tillman would prefer to return to Baltimore, where he knows and is known.
Also, the situation in Detroit is no less dreadful than the situation in Baltimore, so a minor league deal in Detroit would not be more likely to lead to a guaranteed rotation spot than the same minor-league deal in Baltimore.
Those are reasonable considerations, that lead to a reasonable question, and it does you no credit to respond with sarcasm or condescension.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Some teams offer more than other teams. There isn't snark or condescension. That's just the way it is.

Jon Shepherd said...

Tillman was not pulling the trigger. He was waiting on that. So you have a situation where you wait him out and hope other teams do not step up or you think 3 MM is a decent holder to secure him. Everyone's offer is fluid.

Anonymous said...

So why did Dyson take 2/7.5 from the D'backs when the O's were offering 2/12?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Where did you see that?

Jon Shepherd said...

That is the number the Sun said Dyson asked the Orioles for, but they wanted a lower deal because of concerns about his health.