Even before Thursday night’s terrible showing by Chris Tillman against Detroit, the Orioles starter had an ERA of 7.65 in 14 games. Bad starts have become the Achilles heel for the 29 year old pitcher, the struggle a difficult pill to swallow as it has become consistent for the man who has been considered the ace of the staff. With his record sitting at a dismal 1-6 (with a 3.53 run support per game), Tillman has struggled finding the strike zone and has a real knack for giving up the long ball.
This hasn’t always been the case, as Orioles’ fans are well aware. Just last year, Tillman had a 3.77 ERA in 30 games and struck out 140 in a 172 innings pitched (0.81 K’s an inning). Last year he gave up only 19 home runs all season, less than one for every nine innings. Compare that to this year where he has given up 14 homeruns in 64 innings, an average of one in every 4 1/2 innings. The numbers are straight forward but not pretty.
That’s a lot of statistics, which, in baseball, tell the tale but don’t necessarily get you the full story. How do you explain the sudden drop off in success? In Spring Training, Tillman quickly found himself on the DL after hurting his shoulder. The injury led to him missing more time than first expected and he didn’t start a game in 2017 until May 7th against the White Sox. After his struggles began, many speculated that he wasn’t ready to come off the DL but he had convinced the team that he was ready to go. Could it be that he is still pitching injured? One would like to think that, given the Orioles reputation around the league for being sticklers on physicals, and the fact that they are a professional major league sports team that employs some of the industry’s best sports medicine doctors, Tillman didn’t finagle his way back and risk endangering his health by pitching while not at 100%.
More realistically, his injury has had an indirect relation to the failures that he has faced this season. According to Fangraphs, Tillman’s strike zone stats are dismal. Of his pitches that he throws in the strike zone, opposing hitters are swinging 71% of the time. Of his pitches not in the strike zone, he is getting hitters to swing only 24% of the time. Considering those stats when you are also aware that batters are hitting .352 off of you and not biting at anything you throw out of the zone, all of a sudden you have a recipe for disaster.
Needless to say, Tillman’s injury has set him back, even if it’s not necessarily the conspiracy theory that he’s signing his parents name on his permission slip. It was a concern even before he got hurt when scouts noticed a drop in the velocity of his fastball, which peculiarly only got worse as he worked his way back from shoulder problems. That lack of confidence, combined with the utmost failure to find the dominance he displayed in years past has got to be a gargantuan weight on his mentality.
The Orioles organization, who made the trade for Jeremy Hellickson before the trade deadline, would be well off to look into options that would allow them to remove Tillman from the rotation and shut him down for the season. Buck Showalter stated that the team will move forward with a six man rotation to give the rotation more rest time between starts. However, if Tillman continues to give up the offensive numbers we have seen him dole out over the last three months, the coaching staff needs to come to the realization that he is hurting both himself and the team whose front office was confident could be real contenders as they drive towards the push for the playoffs.