Dillon Atkinson: Despite one rocky outing, Tillman looking strong

Right-hander Chris Tillman turned in his best season on the mound in 2014, recording a 3.34 ERA (4.01 FIP) over 207.1 innings pitched for the Orioles. However, 2015 was a season that he probably hopes to forget, as he posted a 4.99 ERA (4.45 FIP) over 173 innings.

Buck Showalter still showed faith in his starter, as he gave Tillman the opening day nod this season, and the 28-year-old right-hander has bounced back pretty nicely over his first six starts:

  • April 4 vs Minnesota Twins - 2 IP, 0 ER, 0 R, 0 H, 0 BB, 5 K
  • April 8 vs Tampa Bay Rays - 5 IP, 1 ER, 1 R, 4 H, 2 BB, 5 K
  • April 14 at Texas Rangers - 5.1 IP, 6 ER, 6 R, 9 H, 1 BB, 1 K
  • April 21 vs Toronto Blue Jays - 6 IP, 2 ER, 2 R, 4 H, 3 BB, 4 K
  • April 27 at Tampa Bay Rays - 6.2 IP, 0 ER, 0 R, 2 H, 2 BB, 9 K
  • May 3 vs New York Yankees - 7 IP, 1 ER, 1 R, 5 H, 4 BB, 9 K

From these outings so far this season, Tillman has a 2.81 ERA (2.62 FIP), with 9.28 strikeouts per nine innings, 3.38 walks per nine innings, and 2.9 percent home run -to- fly ball ratio, averaging six innings pitched per start - if you exclude his two-inning outing that he got pulled from due to a long rain delay.

Tillman ranks 11th on Fangraphs.com’s starting pitcher leaderboard so far this season with a 1.0 fWAR - and, to even more surprise - his 2.62 FIP ranks 10th among major league starters.

In 2016, Tillman has been using his four-seam fastball 15.85 percent less than he did in 2015, and 27.14 percent less than he did in 2014. In late 2014, BrooksBaseball.net shows he started toying around with a sinker grip, but he didn’t throw it too often. The percentage of his sinker usage rose to 12.58 percent in 2015, and is now at 17.59 percent so far this season.

He has also nearly doubled his usage of his cutter since last season, from 7.36 to 14.62 percent. Raising the amount of times he throws his cutter and sinker lets him rely on his four-seam less often, which then helps it become a more effective pitch. Also, which may have some effect, Tillman has picked up a mile per hour on all five of his pitches so far since last year.

Aside from the arsenal usage, Tillman has also generated softer contact so far this year. From 2015 to 2016, he has lowered his hard-hit rate from 26.9 to 25.9 percent and his medium-hit rate from 54.3 to 48.1 percent, while increasing his soft-hit rate from 18.9 to 25.9 percent. It’s pretty obvious that the less hard contact you generate, the more success you’re likely going to have, which is exactly what Tillman is doing.

Tillman does need to work on his walk rate, which is at 3.38 per nine innings, but I’ll try not to nitpick here. If he starts to struggle later in the season, it’ll be important for him to keep the walk total down. Overall, Tillman is off to a hot start in 2016. If this is just a hot stretch that could fizzle very soon, we should enjoy what he’s doing right now while it’s still here. But if Tillman has taken his game to the next level and this level is here to stay - I won’t go as far as calling him an “ace” by any means - but he’ll certainly be a lot more fun to watch than he was last season. Although, it’s pretty hard for anything he does this season to look worse than last year.

Dillon Atkinson blogs about the Orioles for Orioles Uncensored. Follow him on Twitter: @DAtkinsonOU. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. 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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