Baltimore Orioles: Projecting Chris Tillman’s Production in 2017

There’s no doubt that Orioles ace Chris Tillman had a strong 2016, going 16-6 with a 3.77 ERA. The question is, what can we expect from him in 2017?

Chris Tillman spent the first four seasons of his career bouncing around between AAA and the Major League squad. However, he has been an everyday starer since 2013. Since the start of that season, Tillman has been a fixture in the Orioles’ rotation.

In four seasons since ’13, Chris Tillman has missed only five starts, pitching in at least 30 games every year. His 128 starts in that span are the fifth most of any pitcher in the league, which is a clear testament to his dependability. Tillman’s 758.2 IP in that time average out to roughly 190 innings per season, a plateau reached by only 28 pitchers in 2016.

If not for a lingering injury to his right shoulder, I would say Tillman would have been a virtual lock to throw 200 innings in 2017. Unfortunately for the Orioles, it’s already been announced that he will miss Opening Day. Assuming this injury costs him only one or two starts, expect a solid 180 innings out of Tillman next season.

I’ve said many times, putting your arm over your head and jerking it down violently is not what the good lord intended us to do. So you’re going to have aches and pains, and you’re going to have problems.” – Orioles manager Buck Showalter, per The Baltimore Sun

Now let’s take a look at the rest of his numbers over the last four seasons. His 6.99 K/9 and 3.13 BB/9 do not stand out by any means. Still,  he’s managed to get batters out when it counts. Tillman’s 3.91 ERA is actually not bad for a starter who makes his career in the AL East. Still, ERA estimators aren’t so fond of his work. Both xFIP (4.28) and SIERA (4.34) peg Tillman’s pitching as slightly worse than it seems.

Aside from a spotty 2015 season, Tillman has been good for an ERA in the mid-upper 3.00s and seven strikeouts per nine innings. In that ’15 season, Tillman posted a 4.99 ERA and the lowest strikeout rate of his career (6.24 K/99).

He missed two starts due to a sprained ankle in August, but that doesn’t explain his lackluster performance in ’15. Rather, his .293 BABIP – the highest he’s recorded in a full season, seems to be the reason. His ground ball rate was actually a career-best that season, but those ground balls were getting through the infield. As a result of his career-worst .262 BAA and 3.3 BB/9, Tillman posted an unappealing 1.39 WHIP in 2015.

Tillman rebounded in 2016 though, once again proving that he could lead the Orioles’ rotation. Though he didn’t strike many batters out, or even pitch 180 innings, Tillman had the best fWAR of his career. In 172.0 IP, he posted a 3.77 ERA with 7.33 K/9. That production was good for 2.4 fWAR – a career high for Tillman. However, one alarming takeaway from his ’16 season is that he posted the worst walk rate of his career (3.45 BB/9).

Tillman is the type of pitcher that isn’t elite in any aspect, but still manages to get the job done. He doesn’t rank well in most categories, but his .288 BABIP since 2015 is 29th best in baseball (minimum 300 IP). That’s a better mark than Jacob deGrom, Cole Hamels, Carlos Carrasco, Noah Syndergaard and Chris Sale.

Now it’s time to address the real question. How did Tillman get back on track last season, and can he do the same in 2017? For starters, he threw his fastball 10 percent less often than in ’15. In fact, Tillman’s 56.8 percent FB rate last season is 5.1 percent lower than his career average (per Fangraphs). By PITCHf/x standards he threw his fastball 51.6 percent of the time last year, which was still 9.4 percent higher than the season prior.

Fangraphs and PITCHf/x have slightly different numbers when it comes to pitch type, but the result is the same. It’s what he replaced his fastball with that matters most. He upped his changeup rate by about 2 percent, but it’s his cutter (or slider, according to PITCHf/x) that truly replaced his fastball usage.

Tillman through his cutter/slider 7.5 percent of the time in 2015, and a similar 7.9 percent in his career. However, last season he more than doubled the frequency that he threw his cutter (slider) to 15.6 percent. According to both Fangraphs and PITCHf/x, that cutter/slider was his most valuable pitch in 2016. It also likely helped Tillman that he lowered his curveball rate by nearly 2 percent last year, as that is by far his worst pitch.

His velocity hasn’t changed significantly in any way, meaning pitch selection is the real difference here. If Tillman can keep using that slider/cutter the way he did last year (maybe even a little more) and stay on the field, the Orioles can expect another solid season from their ace in the rotation.

Projection for 2017: 31 GS, 182 IP, 3.70 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 7.91 K/9, 3.32 BB/9, .279 BABIP, 3.2 fWAR

All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com

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