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The Orioles need Chris Tillman right to make a playoff push

It's no secret that Chris Tillman had a rough start to 2015, but how has he been able to turn it around of late?

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this month, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs wrote a very interesting and insightful article—which I highly recommend you read—as to why Baltimore Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman had been able to turn his season around. Not only did he look at some of Tillman’s data from various sites, but he also got the opportunity to speak with the Orioles starter about some of the adjustments he has made and how they might have affected him. Here is a highlight of what Eno covered:

  • He has a new sinker, which has a 63 percent ground ball rate
  • He switched from the two-seam changeup grip to the four-seam grip
  • He moved three to six inches to his left toward first base
  • He has his fastball back at league-high spin rates

Although that is just a small tidbit from Sarris’ article it does very well to summarize some of the causes for the dominant Chris Tillman we saw in July. From June 28th to July 29th, the righty made six starts, allowing only five earned runs while not giving up a single home run. This resulted in a crisp 1.09 ERA, 2.19 FIP, and 3.43 xFIP over 41.1 innings.

That is the same Chris Tillman that we saw post one of the worst stretches of his career to start his 2015 campaign. At one point this season, Tillman owned a 6.22 ERA that was backed up by an equally dreadful FIP and xFIP of 5.10 (!!!). That point was following a June 21st start against the Toronto Blue Jays, 72.1 innings deep into the veterans’ season. In said start, Tillman faced only 10 batters, managed to surrender six earned runs on six hits, and allowed more home runs (two) than innings he pitched (1.1). It was one of the worst starts—and believe me, Tillman has had some clunkers—in the 27-year-old’s career.

The Tale of Two Tillmans
Period of Time Starts IP ERA FIP xFIP BABIP K% BB% HR/FB% GB%
April 6th - June 21st 14 72.1 6.22 5.09 5.09 .314 15.6% 11.2% 10.9% 38.5%
June 28th - July 29th 6 41.1 1.09 2.19 3.43 .246 19.4% 3.9% 0.0% 52.6%

It is one thing to have a slow start, but it is something else entirely to do what Tillman has done this season. Although the veteran did start on Tuesday, for now I’m going to focus mainly on the adjustments he had made between the first and second segments of his season. That being said, we will eventually talk about that aforementioned start—but for right now put it in the back of your mind.

Like I said before, I agree with Eno Sarris that those adjustments caused the resurgence of Tillman. The only thing I would add to Sarris’ thoughts is that the emergence of Tillman’s sinker, combined with a desire to get more ground balls, has led to a decreasing reliance on his four-seam fastball. It is one thing to trust your primary pitch, but it is a different thing to trust your secondary pitches. However, there is another secondary pitch that Tillman offers which wasn’t talked about. It is this pitch that I would like to offer as somewhat of an adjustment to Sarris’ list: the oddity of Tillman’s knuckle-curveball. Check out where it stands compared to his improved sinker and changeup:

April 6th - June 21st
Pitch Pitch Count AB BAA SLG BABIP Whiff/Swing GB/BIP
Change 147 32 .313 .656 .250 13.11 35.48
Knuckle-Curve 195 37 .405 .514 .484 12.28 67.74
Sinker 65 7 .429 .429 .500 20.00 66.67

June 28th - July 29th
Pitch Pitch Count AB BAA SLG BABIP Whiff/Swing GB/BIP
Change 90 25 .040 .040 .044 22.00 50.00
Knuckle-Curve 87 10 .000 .000 .000 35.00 100.00
Sinker 89 30 .167 .233 ..200 8.16 66.67

You read that right - Chris Tillman did not give up a hit on his knuckle-curveball for almost 42 innings. However, there is something quirky about this specific pitch. Normally if a pitcher throws a pitch for a ball more than half the time, the pitch won’t be effective, right? For some reason, Tillman is able to maintain a high ball percentage while also keeping the pitch effective—and this season is no exception.

From the start of this season until June 21st, Tillman managed to throw the aforementioned pitch for a ball 53.9 percent of the time. Following that start, he threw his knuckle-curve for a ball 55.2 percent of the time. In fact, Tillman has thrown his knuckle-curve for a ball over 50 percent of the time every season since his 2011 campaign while also managing to maintain a BAA under .230 over that same period of time.

Though the ball percentage is roughly similar, he has made an adjustment with his knuckle-curve as well. The reason it has been more effective in the second stretch of this season is the result of two things: a change in horizontal movement and a decrease in grooved pitches. Let’s look at both some Brooks Baseball data for both:

As the chart shows, Tillman has more horizontal movement on his knuckle-curve this season than he ever has in his career. Even though he has lost some of the crazy-high movement he had to start the season, Tillman is still well above where he had been in the past. This increase in movement could be responsible for the increased production allowed, as it could’ve moved more than Tillman anticipated and into an easily hittable location. This would help explain the increased rate of grooved pitches in the earlier part of the season as well.

However, it was the second portion of Tillman’s season in which the movement started to inch lower and closer to his career average. Once Tillman traded movement for more control, he was able to stop grooving pitches as much as he was. The fewer pitches he grooved, the better the result the veteran was able to have.

Remember when I said to forget about Tillman’s Tuesday start? Now is when you can bring it back to the forefront of your memory.

On Tuesday, Tillman squared off against the Seattle Mariners. The result was not too impressive. Lasting only 2.1 innings, he allowed five earned runs on eight hits while also giving up two homers. It was the exact opposite of what he had managed to do when he righted the ship in July. Although you might think this was the impending regression following such high production, this was the first start Tillman had made in nearly two weeks. It is equally as plausible to think that Tillman, who sprained his left ankle on July 29th and missed two starts because of it, could have been affected by some type of injury hangover.

However, there were some warning signs that we might’ve been witnessing the Tillman of before June 28th. For example, Tillman broke the hitless streak he had going on his curveball by giving up his first home run since June 21st on a grooved curveball. He also gave up four hits against his new and improved sinker.

So, where does that leave Tillman?

Chris Tillman has basically had three seasons in 2015. The focus has been on the first two, but the most important might actually be the third. As you might’ve guessed, Tillman’s third season is between now and the end of the year. It is then that the veteran can either press forward with the clearly positive changes he made in July or regress to his April through June form.

Now is when the Orioles need him the most. Seen as one of the top pitchers on the Orioles staff, Tillman permanently righting the ship could be instrumental in the Orioles erasing the 2.5 game deficit they have for the second American League Wild Card—or even the much more challenging 5.5 game deficit they have in the AL East.

It is clear that there were more than a few adjustments that helped Tillman have an outstanding July, which makes me reluctant to write off said success as just a fluke or luck. For that reason, I don’t know that it would surprise anyone if Chris Tillman were to finish the rest of this season in a strong fashion.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.