05 February 2018

The Case Against Re-Signing Chris Tillman

Here's the case FOR the Orioles signing Chris Tillman. He's a starting pitcher -- the end. Considering the current makeup of the roster, that might be a large enough bone to throw a hungry, restless fanbase for now.

But, well, there's more to it than that. For a few years, Tillman was pretty good. He never performed well in the fielding independent pitching department, but he threw over 200 innings a couple times. From 2012-2016, he accumulated an ERA of 3.81. In that span, his ERA was lower than his FIP by 0.46 (14th highest among qualified starters). That's a lot, but it's nothing ridiculous. The leader, Chris Young, outperformed his FIP by over a full run (1.06). Miguel Gonzalez's ERA-FIP was 0.70 (fifth best). A pitcher outperforming his FIP significantly indicates a measure of luck, but doing so over time also hints at an ability to limit hard contact, pitch more efficiently with runners on base, induce a lot of fly balls, etc.

Overall, Tillman's production was decent, and the O's could use someone like that because they only have two starting pitchers fans can maybe feel good about. Maybe that MASN promo is right. No respect for Tillman, huh? What gives?

As misleading as that video is, unfortunately, then 2017 happened. Or, to be more precise, the end of the 2016 season and 2017 happened.

For most of 2016, Tillman was having another Tillman-like season. He was on pace to throw 200 innings again, but in late August, he was placed on the disabled list with bursitis in his right shoulder. Before that injury, he had only been on the disabled list one time -- at the beginning of the 2013 season, with a strained left abdominal. He was activated a week later. When Tillman came back in mid-September in 2016, he was able to make four more regular season starts and the results were normal. Tillman put up a 3.79 ERA (and a FIP under 4). Buck Showalter also selected him to start the O's wild card game against the Blue Jays, and he did well enough (4.1 IP, 2 ER) in a crushing, maddening loss.

Some cracks were showing, though. Tillman's four-seam fastball velocity dropped nearly every month during the season:

He also started to move away from the pitch even more. Before 2015, Tillman typically threw his four-seamer about 60% of the time. In 2015, he threw it about 52%. That number then dipped again to about 40% in 2016, while he started to mix in more sinkers and cutters. Tillman's sinker is thrown a tick slower than his four-seamer, and his cutter is in the 86-87 mph range.

Despite being able to finish the 2016 season, the 2017 offseason didn't go well for Tillman. He still felt some discomfort in December, and he received a platelet-rich-plasma injection to help with the rehabilitation. By the time spring came around, he was still feeling soreness in his shoulder and wasn't able to pitch in any spring training games. He was prescribed a cortisone shot in March, and any chance of him being ready for opening day went out the window.

He began the season on the newly installed 10-day disabled list and wasn't activated until May 7. In his return, he threw five innings, allowed six baserunners, and didn't allow a run. It seemed promising, and the O's could certainly use the starting rotation help. Unfortunately, things quickly went south, and that outing ended up being Tillman's only start of the year when he didn't allow a run.

Opponents put numbers on the board against Tillman, many of them crooked. His performance -- 93 innings, 7.84 ERA, 6.93 FIP -- was historically bad. According to Baseball-Reference's Play Index, Tillman became just the fourth player since 1901 to pitch at least 90 innings and post an ERA over 7.80. Another O's pitcher, Scott Erickson in 2000, is also on the list.

In May, Tillman's four-seamer velocity started out even lower than at the end of 2016. In April, his average fastball clocked in at 90.4 mph. That number inched upward through August (aided by Tillman's demotion to the bullpen), but it dipped back down in September. At the end of the year, he finished with an average four-seamer velocity of 91.2 mph -- his lowest since 2011 (90.4), when he made 13 starts.

He also threw even fewer four-seamers, about 34%, while increasing his cutter usage to about 23%. Was he going to ditch the pitch anyway? Was throwing too many four-seamers putting extra stress on Tillman's shoulder? His fluctuating fastball velocity is a constant concern, but this was the first time it seemed tied directly to an injury.

Interestingly enough, Tillman also started taking much longer between pitches in 2016. FanGraphs has a stat called Pace, and it simply measures the time (in seconds) between pitches for hitters and batters. On average, 20 seconds is fast, 21.5 seconds is average, and 23.5 seconds is slow. From 2009-2015, Tillman was average to below average in Pace, ranging from 21.5-22.9 seconds. In 2016, he took over 24 seconds between pitches. In 2017, it jumped to nearly 27 seconds.

What does that mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe, for whatever reason, Tillman has just developed into a slow worker. But besides it being frustrating to watch, perhaps it could be argued that he needed more time in between pitches to recover. Could that be tied to a shoulder that possibly isn't 100%? It's a stretch, but it's worth noting.


The Orioles need starting pitching. But even more than that, they need quality starting pitching. By the end of last season, the O's had six starting pitchers. Four of them were awful.

If Tillman is truly healthy and back to form, of course the O's should want him back. But even on a low-risk, one-year deal, there's no way of knowing which Tillman is going to show up. The hope is that he's had a normal, pain-free offseason, and that he'll be able to benefit from a full spring of workouts and pitching appearances.

No one knows Tillman like the O's, and maybe that's why they'll eventually bring him back. But considering it wouldn't take that much to sign him, it's a little surprising they haven't done so already. Still, there are other starter choices available, and the O's should go in another direction.


Jon Shepherd said...

It is also probably important to note that he keeps dropping his release point. He is not getting the extension of his arm and rotation of his shoulder like he used to. It reduces his fastball and his curve looks to be sliding toward source territory. It is still a well defined curveball, but it is venturing toward that threshold.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Good point, Jon. It is something else to be worried about.

Jon Shepherd said...

Yeah, he lost about 3 inches of depth on his curve last year...which is stunning. It is incredibly easy to see and I wonder why it took the Orioles so long to realize Tillmans mechanical issues.

Unknown said...

>321 LEAGUE against average, pass, worse than Ubaldo last season. Actually, worst starter in MLB last season, no thanks.

Pip said...

Do we know whether he is being considered for a minor league contract or whether he is insisting on a major league contract? I have heard(Fangraphs?)that he is projected for a one-year $6 million contract, but I think that would be horribly bad.
I personally think he is toast and has been since the 16 off-season. But other factors led to him being rushed back.
If we can get him on a minor league contract with incentives, then sure.
Otherwise forget it.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

No, we don't know. Still, I can't imagine he'd be unable to at least secure a major league deal.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Matt Kremnitzer said...

Even if that were true, a whole lot of exercise isn't going to help if there's an issue with his shoulder.

Jon Shepherd said...

Tillman literally works out every day in Sarasota. Him and Brady work on training regimes.

Besides being inaccurate, it is tiring to see the level of discourse be reduced to name calling. I do not want to see any more of that in the comments. If a player has a deficiency, then mention it as an adult.

Unknown said...

Hey Matt, Just saw this. Couple of errors in here. Check your dates and ERA. I think Chris can get his release point back. Just needs to get back to doing the things he once did. Nice relaxed delivery and repeating his mechanics.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

If you see something in particular that's wrong, feel free to offer the correction. Thanks.

Unknown said...

You said 2012-16 on his stats which were his 2012-17 stats. No biggie. Just thought I would let you know. Enjoy the day of multiple Oriole moves.

Matt Kremnitzer said...