No team got less from its starting rotation in 2011 than the Baltimore Orioles. So many starts from O's pitchers were short at brutal: they finished last in the American League in innings pitched, ERA (5.39) and Fielding Independent Pitching (4.91), contributing to the club's wretched 93-loss season. While he didn't get shelled to Brian Matusz-like levels, Chris Tillman continued to disappoint by posting a five-plus ERA both in the majors and at Triple-A Norfolk.
Tillman was once considered the centerpiece in the February 2008 Erik Bedard deal with the M's that also netted Adam Jones, and the 23-year-old righty has punched out nearly a batter per inning in the minors. But his lack of big-league success -- he has a career 5.58 ERA and a 5.31 FIP in 180.2 innings pitched -- has MASN's Roch Kubato suggesting that the O's are willing to deal Tillman and that "he's running out of chances, even at such a young age."
Trading Tillman is a dubious proposition. Baltimore would likely be shopping him for 50 cents on the dollar, and it's not like the upper levels of the system are brimming with top-tier arms. This is a team that gave the likes of Chris Jakubauskas and Jo-Jo-Reyes extended looks, after all. But there's no question that Tillman has fallen woefully short of making good on his former top-25 prospect status. Scouts once gave him plaudits for a fastball that touched the mid-90s and a big-breaking curveball, but he hasn't shown that stuff in Baltimore. Considering that he's still approaching batters like he's a power pitcher, that's a problem.
Tillman's fastball has averaged just 90.6 mph in the majors, and that velocity has dipped each season (92 mph in 2009, 90.3 in 2010 and 89.3 this past year). That hasn't stopped him from trying to blow the ball past batters high in the strike zone:
Over three-quarters of Tillman's fastballs have been located in the middle or high part of the zone. Opponents rarely miss Tillman's high heat (his fastball has an 11.7 miss percentage, well below the 14.1 percent average for starters), and they have scorched many of those pitches put in play. Check out Tillman's in-play slugging percentage on fastballs by pitch location, compared to the league average:
Batters morph into Jose Bautista against Tillman's fastball, slugging a collective .600 against the pitch. The pitch is also responsible for his homer woes: 27 of the 29 round-trippers that Tillman has served up have come on fastballs.
The beasts of the AL East feast on high, flat fastballs, as do most hitters. Velocity matters tremendously when a pitcher tries to go mano-e-mano with a batter high in the strike zone. Look at the miss percentages and slugging percentages on high fastballs, by fastball velocity:
88-90 mph: 16.1 miss%, .445 SLG%
91-92 mph: 19 miss%, .399 SLG%
93-94 mph: 21.5 miss%, .373 SLG%
95+ MPH: 26.7 miss%, .281 SLG%
A not-so-speedy fastball is not Tillman's only problem, though. He hasn't been able to spot his mid-to-high-70s curveball, throwing the pitch for a strike just 49 percent of the time (63 percent average for starters). Tillman places lots of breaking balls below the knees...
But they're not going after those chase pitches at all. Here's Tillman's opponent swing rate on curves by pitch location, and then the league average:
Hitters have chased 18 percent of Tillman's curveballs out of the strike zone, way below the 28-29 percent average in recent seasons.
Tillman's vanishing fastball velocity, control issues with his curve and lack of conviction in his changeup go a long way toward explaining why he has racked up few Ks (5.8 per nine innings), walked plenty (4 BB/9) and coughed up 1.4 homers per nine. He's trying to pitch as if he still has 95 mph in his back pocket, when in reality he's struggling to hit 90 with a strong back wind. And with so many high, juicy fastballs up in the zone and few changeups to worry about, why should hitters bother offering at his oft-errant curve?
Trading Tillman isn't the answer. But if the velocity that helped make him a top prospect doesn't return, he's going to have to adapt by throwing fewer high fastballs. Challenging hitters high at 95 might work, but it's a losing strategy when the radar gun reading starts with an eight.