Post-Hype Analysis: Chris Tillman
I get a lot of questions about Chris Tillman of the Baltimore Orioles, basically variations on "Can he live up to the potential he showed in the minor leagues?"
Tillman was a second round pick by the Seattle Mariners in 2006, a high school pitcher from Fountain Valley, California. He was rated a first-round talent entering the spring, but an erratic senior year dropped his stock slightly. He hit 93-95 MPH on his best days, but also had days when he was stuck in the 85-87 range, so scouts weren't sure what to expect. He was projectable at 6-5, 195, and he showed promise with a splitter and slider. Tillman was brilliant in 11 Arizona Rookie League innings (one earned run, 16/5 K/BB), but was crushed after being promoted to the Northwest League (7.78 ERA in 20 innings with 29/15 K/BB). I gave him a Grade B- in the 2007 book.
Tillman began 2007 with Wisconsin in the Midwest League, posting a 3.55 ERA with a 34/13 K/BB in 33 innings. This was decent, but not spectacular. However, the Mariners moved him up to the pinball machine at High Desert in May. He was annihilated in his first few starts and it looked like a really stupid decision, but he kept his head about him and pitched much better as the season progressed, finishing with a 1.82 ERA in his last five starts. His velocity settled into the 90-93 range, he replaced the slider with a strong curveball, and developed a better changeup in place of the high school splitter. I gave him a Grade B+, ranking him as the Number 16 pitching prospect in the game.
Traded to Baltimore in the Eric Bedard deal, Tillman spent all of 2008 with Double-A Bowie, going 11-4, 3.18 with a 154/65 K/BB in 136 innings, 115 hits. The walk rate was a bit high, but his curveball and changeup continued to improve and he worked consistently in the 92-94 range. I gave him another Grade B+, ranked Number 14 on the list.
As you know, Tillman has split the 2009 and 2010 seasons between Triple-A and Baltimore, and is in the rotation to open 2011. He now has 39 career Triple-A starts under his belt, with a 19-13 record, 3.06 ERA, and 193/56 K/BB in 218 innings, 205 hits allowed. Clearly he has nothing left to learn at Norfolk, and his statistics there certainly imply that he should be successful in the majors. But it hasn't happened yet. In 27 major league starts, he's 4-12, 5.69, with an 86/61 K/BB in 138 innings, 149 hits allowed, 77 ERA+, 5.68 FIP, 4.95 xFIP, and a WAR of 0.1.
From an historical perspective, his slow career start isn't necessarily lethal to his future. The Most Comparable Pitchers for Tillman according to Baseball Prospectus are Johnny Cueto-2010, Jair Jurrjens-2010, Homer Bailey-2010, Jess Todd-2010, Tyler Clippard-2009, Ervin Santana-2007, Chad Gaudin-2007, Zack Greinke-2008, Hayden Penn-2009, and Anibal Sanchez-2008. Obviously the Orioles would be thrilled if they could get a Greinke or Jurrjens-like outcome out of him, or even Sanchez and Cueto.
But what's the particular cause of his problems so far? Tillman's pitch selection has changed somewhat over the last three years. He still throws right around 60% fastballs, but he's added a cutter, complimenting his curveball and changeup. The cutter is an effective pitch for him, at least if you buy into Fangraph's "pitch type values." The changeup is also fairly effective and the curveball isn't horrendous, but where he gets killed is the fastball. His fastball velocity is declining steadily, ranging from 88 to 95 MPH in 2008 (92.0 average), to 88-93 last year (90.3), to just 85-92 (88.8) this year. He's still throwing hard enough to succeed if his command is there, but sharp command isn't something he's consistently demonstrated.
I haven't seen enough of Tillman in person or on TV to speculate about the exact causes of why the velocity drop is happening, and would be very interested in the observations of Orioles fans or others who have seen a lot of him. There's speculation about an injury and he skipped a start with a sore groin. His ERA is 6.16 in four starts this year, but his WHIP of 1.42 is improved from his pre-season career 1.54 mark. His FIP (3.68) and xFIP (4.03) are much better than the ERA, and he's pitched well in two of his four starts.
Overall, as long as he's healthy, I think there's still a good chance that Tillman can live up to his potential, perhaps as soon as this year. He's only 23. If he had gone to Cal State Fullerton instead of signing with the Mariners in 2006, he would have been drafted in 2009, very likely as a first-round pick, and this would just be his second full pro season. He deserves some slack.