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What can we make of Chris Tillman?

By on February 23

There’s something different in the Sarasota air this spring.  Can you feel it?

I think it’s called stability.

Due to the volume and quality of the acquisitions made during the offseason, spring training for the Orioles in 2011 figures to differ from previous years in that there won’t be many meaningful position battles that will take place during camp.  With Derek Lee, Mark Reynolds, JJ Hardy, Vladimir Guerrero, and others stepping in to fill obvious holes, one of the only real unanswered questions centers around who will fill out the Orioles starting rotation.

Barring injury or catastrophe, we can basically pencil in (1) Jeremy Guthrie, (2) Brian Matusz, and (3) Justin Duchscherer.  After that?  Given that both experienced some success last season, you would have to figure that Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen would be the prohibitive favorites to round out the starting five.  If so, then Chris Tillman and Zach Britton would return to AAA to continue their development.

What’s interesting to me, however, is that I’m not so sure many fans would handicap the AAA depth chart thusly: Tillman and Britton.  I think there is a general sense that Britton might have surpassed Tillman and is next in line to be called up.

Should it comes to pass, it would mark a notable and at least somewhat surprising shift for the centerpiece of the Erik Bedard trade, from likely front-of-the-rotation starter, to “organizational depth” and taking a number with Troy Patton.

How did we get here?

Not very long ago, Tillman was a very highly touted prospect.  This 2009 mid-season report from Baseball America has him listed as the 8th best prospect in all of baseball (up from 22nd in the preseason rankings) and just ahead of Brian Matusz.  While not every prospect realizes his potential, you can get a sense for Tillman’s acclaim by noting some of the other players on this list: Buster Posey, who you may remember as the 2010 NL Rookie of the Year and WS champion, and Neftali Feliz, who set the rookie record for 40 saves in a season last year, just to name a few.  In 2009 Tillman was also selected to start the All-Star Futures Game, which features the most advanced minor league prospects in all of baseball during All Star weekend.

The trouble with Tillman, however, and what makes his future so difficult to predict, is his consistent inconsistency.

After that very strong half-season for AAA Norfolk in 2009, Tillman struggled after being promoted to the majors, posting a 2-5 record and a 5.40 ERA over 12 starts.  Then, not only did he fail to crack the starting rotation out of spring training in 2010, but he struggled mightily in his first 3 starts at AAA, posting a 0-3 record and an 8.38 ERA.  Regressing against inferior talent and without even the benefit of favorable prospect ratings to buoy him, Tillman took a major step backward. Things seemed bleak.

So how did he respond?

Well, by throwing the first 9-inning no hitter in the International League since 2006 naturally, dispatching his opponents with 105 pitches and facing only one batter over the minimum.

Of course he did.

And after struggling in the beginning of his second major league call up, having failed to make it past the sixth inning and posting a 8.40 ERA in his first 4 starts, he nearly did it again, no hitting the eventual AL Champion Texas Rangers through six innings, and out-dueling Cliff Lee en route to the win.

Perhaps predictably, that moment of brilliance gave way to further tribulation, and Tillman ended his 2010 campaign with numbers similar to those he posted in 2009: a 2-5 record and a 5.87 ERA over 11 starts.

What, then, can we make of Chris Tillman at this point?  Is he a high-ceiling talent who just needs more time to develop? Or is he a maddeningly inconsistent AAAA player incapable of translating his skills to the major league level?  While his performance this spring should help to answer that question, here are a few reasons I think we can regard him as an unfinished product, rather than a bust.

1.  He’s still very young.

Still only 22 years old, Tillman is younger than all of his contemporaries. He’s two years younger than Brian Matusz or Jake Arrieta, and he’s actually even a year younger than Zach Britton.  It seems to me that Baseball America highly regards young pitchers who move up the organizational ladder quickly and dominate at high levels, as Tillman did when he posted a 2.70 ERA for AAA Norfolk in 2009.

Just because he hasn’t yet put it all together at the major league level doesn’t mean that he can’t or never will.  As much promise as Matusz has shown, he didn’t make major league debut until he was 22 himself.  And though Brian’s overall numbers have been much better than Tillman’s to this point in his career, Matusz didn’t really find his groove until his final 10 starts of 2010, which means it took him 30 starts before he really found a rhythm.  By comparison, Tillman has only had 23 starts in the majors and he had them at a younger age.

He may not be Jim Palmer, but he could still turn out to be quite good. If his true pitching talents, for good or for ill, aren’t revealed until later this year, that actually won’t make him a late bloomer.  It will make him right on schedule.

2.  He’s a big dude.  Tall pitchers often struggle with consistency.

At 6’5″ and 200 lbs, Tillman has a commanding mound presence.  Unfortunately, like other tall pitchers, he also struggles with his command, as evidenced by his cumulative 4.2 BB/K ratio.

If you look back at some of Tillman’s starts, you can see that he has a bad habit of leaving his fastball up.  I’m no pitching coach, but it has been suggested that taller guys have a more difficult time repeating their delivery and consistently finding their arm slot.

So it seems plausible that Tillman’s struggles to date are just as much a product of the challenges posed by his body type as they are a result of his youth and inexperience. To the extent that the two challenges should combine synergistically, it seems reasonable that he might need even just a little more time to wholly come into his own than other pitchers without the “advantage” of his size.

3.  He’s still adjusting his repertoire.

Tillman suffers from an unfortunate irony.  Traditionally, tall pitchers of his ilk are able to generate velocity on their fastball easily, to the point where just being tall is valued by some scouts as it often suggests ability with baseball’s fundamental pitch.

Tillman, however, has been doubly plagued by his four-seam fastball.  He’s been unable to locate it consistently and has had trouble getting much movement on it.  In response to these challenges, AAA pitching coach Mike Griffin suggested that Tillman develop either a cut fastball, a two seam fastball, or both.  While this should help him to cut down on his fly ball outs and allow him to pitch effectively with less velocity, it’s going to take him some time to develop his delivery on these pitches before he can rely on them as main parts of his arsenal.

Of course, since he probably won’t abandon his four-seam fastball entirely, it’s also possible that he discovers a way to deliver it with more velocity or deception, either of which would make his curveball and other secondary pitches that much better.

4.  He seems to be taking this all pretty seriously.

Whatever your reservations about Tillman’s potential, you can’t deny that he seems to have a good approach.  After spending the offseason at the Athletes Performance Institute in California, he should be physically prepared to meet whatever challenges he encounters this season.

Maybe more importantly, I think the fact that Chris doesn’t regard himself as relegated to AAA shows that he’s willing to earn his place on the team and that he believes he has the talent make it happen.  By all accounts, he’s coming into spring training ready to battle the other starters and force his way into the Orioles plans.  It may not mean anything, but it’s hard to find fault with the approach.

During FanFest in January, Buck Showalter shared an anonymized anecdote with the fans about a current pitcher on the Orioles staff.  After watching film of his starts, Showalter said he noticed how hesitant the pitcher seemed, and how he looked into the dugout even between pitches when things weren’t going well.  Before his next start, Buck relayed a simple message to him.

“First time you look into the dugout,” Showalter told the mystery pitcher, “I’m taking you out of the game.”

While he declined to be more specific, I think that gives us an idea about the approach Showalter expects from his starting staff.  Though performance will always be paramount, I think Tillman’s demonstrated ability to stay focused despite adversity shows that he has exactly the kind of mental toughness his head coach demands.

So where does that leave us? As I consider our most enigmatic pitching prospect, I’m reminded of Showalter’s analogy for finding talent, which he likened to panning for gold nuggets in the Old West.  It seems especially appropriate in this instance, given that the only things required of a prospector are patience and time.

It might take longer than we’d prefer—and Tillman might be a prime example of that—but if we hope to develop a talent base that will allow us to compete with our higher payroll adversaries, sometimes we may have to keep sifting, even when it seems useless to continue.

It’s not the quickest way to the top, but if we commit ourselves to the process, we just might strike it rich.

2 Responses to “What can we make of Chris Tillman?”

  1. Paul O. says:

    And I had almost written Tillman off completely. I enjoy watching our starters in this order:
    Guthrie, Matusz, Arrieta, Bergeson, Tillman. Tillman could prove a major factor this year, although I like what I have heard about Britton. We also have Drese, and Duchsherer to keep an eye on. This article should have been written about Adam Jones, as we can probably all agree he didn’t deserve that Gold Glove any more than Markakis did. Adam Jones has not shown me those five tools scouts speak of. Nor has he shown me that he is particularly good at any one of those tools. There was an article written today about Matt Wieters being one of the most dissapointing prospects of all time. Lets not rule him out yet, although his swing needs to be shortened. Instead we should jump on Jones for his performance last year. Perhaps they will all improve this year. I look forward to finding out.

  2. Adam
    Adam says:

    I agree that Britton is definitely a player to watch. It could be that him leapfrogging Tillman on the AAA depth chart is justified, given that Jim Callis of Baseball America thinks he’s the best left-handed pitching prospect in the minors. I’m interested in Tillman, though. As I tried to point out, he’s the youngest of the young starters, so I do think it’s too early to close the book on him.

    Regarding Adam Jones, I think he’s a good if unspectacular player, and I think he’s a good clubhouse presence. Like Tillman, I don’t think we really know what we have from him yet.

    In both cases, it should be fun to watch and find out. Thanks for reading!

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