Heath Bintliff: Back to the future with Chris Tillman

After a 328 day absence, it appears that Chris Tillman is returning to the Orioles rotation Thursday.

While Tillman’s 2010 and 2011 seasons have been difficult and trying, in 2012 he has turned back the clock to 2009.

In 2009, the 21-year old phenom dominated the International League for nearly four months (only Braves 22-year old hurler Tommy Hanson was better). That was the last bit of real success Tillman has had until this season.

I was present at a few of those Norfolk Tides games when Tillman pitched during that season. He looked every bit the No. 2 prospect in the Orioles organization, a future leader of the rotation. He attacked opposing hitters, racked up all kinds of swinging strikes, and threw free and easy with a fastball in the low-to-mid 90s.

I did not recognize the Tillman who showed up in Baltimore. He seemed to be a nibbler, trying to be very careful with the placement of his pitches, sacrificing velocity for command and also some movement on that fastball. Tillman showed flashes of brilliance over the next two and a half seasons, but was too often hit hard. He seemed to lose whatever confidence he had very quickly and he wasn’t even that effective when he returned to Triple-A.

In 2012, the 24-year-old is looking a lot like he did in 2009. A comparison of his Triple-A stats:

Year   Age  ERA   IP  H  R ER HR BB SO  BF  WHIP H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB  FIP
2009    21 2.70 96.2 85 36 29  5 26 99 399 1.148 7.9  0.5  2.4  9.2  3.81 2.63
2012    24 3.63 89.1 85 36 36  5 30 92 378 1.287 8.6  0.5  3.0  9.3  3.07 2.88

Tillman has rediscovered his form, at least when it comes to facing Triple-A lineups. That’s a step in the right direction. It would be nice to think that at 24, he will bring a bit more confidence and resiliency than he did when he made his major league debut at 21.

Because like it or not, Baltimore’s chances of winning in 2012 and in the near future depend not on some pickup at the trade deadline but on the arms of Tillman, Zach Britton and, yes, even Brian Matusz. Here’s hoping Tillman lays some of that foundation in Anaheim on Thursday night.

Heath Bintliff blogs about the Orioles at Dempsey’s Army. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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