Considered by many to be the Orioles’ greatest weakness prior to the season, the pitching staff in Baltimore has been instrumental in the Birds’ run to the division title. Though many players have stepped up and done more than expected this season, perhaps no pitcher had more to do with the success than staff ace Chris Tillman.
Tillman, whom Buck Showalter recently named his ALDS Game One starter, will be counted on to continue to lead the staff in the postseason. Many around the league don’t think him of as a true ace, but could Tillman step up and take on such a role in the playoffs?
Consider two stat lines from this season.
The first line is poor, as the pitcher features a subpar K/BB ratio, a high walk rate, a high home run rate, and so forth. The second line is good, and although the pitcher exhibits a slightly lower K rate, the line two pitcher walks hitters at close to half the rate of the line one pitcher, limits home runs, and is very stingy giving up hits.
The first line one is Chris Tillman from the beginning of the season through his June 5th debacle at Texas, and the second line is Chris Tillman since that game.
Following the miserable outing, in which he surrendered five runs on six hits with three walks in one plus inning pitched, Tillman said, "It’s evident. I know what needs to be done. Just got to do it."
Looking back now, he has done it.
Tillman doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional ace who racks up double-digit strikeouts and can absolutely dominate an opponent, but he has done a fantastic job of limiting the damage and keeping his team in the game. In the 20 games started since that miserable June 5th game, Tillman has not surrendered more than three earned runs in any outing. Furthermore, he has gone at least six innings in all but four of those outings, giving him 16 quality starts in his last 20 tries. Even the games that were not quality starts were decent, as he combined to surrender eight earned runs in 20.2 innings pitched.
Perhaps the biggest change from Tillman since that game has been the effectiveness of the fastball. He doesn’t have terrific velocity, sitting in the 91-92 range with his four seamer, but it has gone from a poor pitch in the first third of the season to a very good pitch in the latter two-thirds of the year. In the beginning of the season, Tillman’s fastball had a pitch value of -5.4, which translates to -0.67 wFB/C. Since the blowup against Texas, Tillman’s fastball has completely turned around and has a pitch value of 19.8, or 1.49 wFB/C. Pitch values are not perfect statistics, but a turnaround like that is very telling for a pitcher. None of his other pitches have featured turnarounds anywhere close to that, and one of them, his curveball, has actually gotten worse by this metric.
On the flip side, Tillman has outperformed his peripherals during his recent run of success. His 2.21 ERA is nice and shiny, but his 4.00 xFIP is not. He is a fly ball pitcher in a hitter-friendly park (where he will throw Game One), and it seems like only a matter of time before more balls start leaving the yard. His BABIP over his run is also extremely low at .238 (well below the league average of .295), and though some of this is due to Baltimore’s defense, his mark is still well below the Orioles’ staff BABIP allowed of .281 this season.
Tillman isn’t going to dominate a game the way that Max Scherzer or David Price can, but he has demonstrated terrific consistency over the latter two-thirds of the season. He has limited walks, kept the ball in the park, and let his good defense work. It’s not the best formula for success, but Tillman is a safe bet to give the Orioles a quality start each time he takes the hill. With a very good back end of the bullpen headlined by Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, and Darren O’Day, that is really all that Tillman will need to provide for the O’s in order for them to have a chance to win.
Supported by a potent offense capable of knocking one out of the park at any time and three shutdown arms in the back of the bullpen, the job of the starters will be simply to keep the team in the game. Tillman has done that for 20 starts in a row, and should be expected to continue to do so in the postseason. Is that the work of an ace? Probably not, but as a very safe bet to deliver quality starts and allow the offense and bullpen go to work, Tillman is more than capable of the leading the O’s staff in October.
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All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.
Dan Weigel is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and an Author of Minor League Ball. Follow him on Twitter at @DanWiggles38