It seemed like fans and reporters alike were saying the same thing Wednesday - “Where did this come from?” - as they watched Chris Tillman take a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning at Seattle.
Tillman’s average fastball velocity in his major league starts in 2011 was 89.3 mph and he averaged 95 mph in Seattle and topped that late in the game as his velocity held strong for 125 pitches.
Plus, Tillman’s delivery was different than what we had seen from him in the past. It was more compact and his back foot started off just about already parallel to the pitching rubber as he began his motion.
As it turns out, some of the changes Tillman made are a direct result of the Orioles’ use this year of biomechanical analysis, which analyzes a pitcher’s delivery. It began in spring training when the pitchers’ various deliveries were recorded. They were later analyzed at the American Sports Medicine Institute’s lab in Birmingham, Ala., and DVDs on each pitcher were returned to the Orioles.
The club’s director of pitching development, Rick Peterson, then developed some changes for several pitchers based off the ASMI findings. He met with Tillman and Norfolk pitching coach Mike Grifin in Norfolk in mid-May to start the process with the right-hander.
It wasn’t long after that that Tillman’s Triple-A ERA dropped from 5.01 to 3.63 in just over a month and he found himself on the mound again wearing an Orioles uniform.
Peterson said Tillman made a strong commitment to get better.
“He was totally committed from day one when we sat in Mike Grifin’s office and showed him the analysis and explained what each measurement meant and showed him the adjustments to correct some things. We walked right out of the office to the bullpen and spent about an hour down there. Then we took him out every day for a week so he understood the routine and he worked it on every day (after that) with Griff. His commitment level clearly shows his desire to be best,” Peterson said.
“We were able to make some very specific adjustments and then Chris had to commit to the process and he did. His preparation was just off the charts as he took to this program and it showed up (Wednesday). Clearly, this is a case where, he doesn’t have any more talent than he had before, he just has a whole different level of preparation. He clearly understands that preparation equals performance. It is a change of routine and a commitment to follow through on that on a daily basis.”
So what adjustments were made that helped Tillman?
“We changed some movement patterns so he could be clean to the pitching rubber,” Peterson said. “We adjusted the path of his leg kick and the timing mechanisms of his hands and legs so they could stay on time and be in rhythm.”
This all helped Tillman repeat his delivery more often, leading to a more consistent release point and leading to better results.
But what accounts for the velocity increase?
“His throwing routine and his long-distance throwing, coupled with the ability to repeat his delivery,” Peterson said. “We have seen this over the years with guys that have gone through this program. If you get a high-end velocity talent like Chris, and then you get the delivery clean, you start to see higher velocities and you see them maintained. (Miguel) Socolovich is a prime example and Miguel Gonzalez is an example of guys that have made these adjustments.
“If you looked at the delivery (of Tillman) prior to the ASMI analysis and look at it now, it is very apparent what the ASMI research has allowed us to identify to adjust.”
For one game, at least, Tillman got eye-opening results with more velocity than he had ever showed at the major league level. His curveball and changeup also were thrown at higher velocities than in the past and he actually threw a higher percentage of his secondary pitches Wednesday than he did last year in the majors.
We’ll see if Tillman can continue to pitch with the velocity and stuff he showed in Seattle. Peterson believes that while Tillman may be a shining example of what biomechanical analysis can do for a pitcher, he won’t be the last to see its positive impact with the Orioles.
“This whole organization is going to benefit from this. Everybody who went through the analysis will have a clear benefit because you can target specifically what you can do better,” Peterson said.
To read more on biomechanical analysis, click here to see a story I wrote about this after Peterson was hired by the Orioles in January.