Watching Chris Tillman implode on Friday night was not only painful in that it lead to yet another Orioles loss – their ninth in 14 games this season – it was far more than that. It was actually quite tragic. Tragic in the sense that a guy who at one stage appeared headed for a fantastic, prolonged, potential Hall of Fame caliber career in Birdland (had he continued on in the vein of 2012-2016), now appears to be on the brink of extinction.
After 10 seasons in the major leagues with the Orioles, Chris Tillman has experienced all the ups and downs a pitcher will typically go through, and like so many before him, he now appears to have reached the point where he simply cannot compete at the highest level any longer.
A young talent in the late 2000’s who showed plenty of promise yet struggled with consistency, the tall right-hander eventually blossomed into a rotation leader during the successful Orioles era of 2012-2016. During that period, he owned a 65-33 record with a 3.81 ERA over 143 starts, anchoring the rotation with aplomb and always being the man Manager Buck Showalter turned to when a losing skid needed to be halted in its tracks. During one stretch, he allowed four runs or less in 74 of 83 starts and was one of the most consistent performers in all of baseball.
Not only was Tillman a competent performer on the field during this period, his leadership within the clubhouse and mentoring nature towards some of the younger pitchers on the staff was widely acknowledged, thus further increasing his value to the Orioles organization.
Since the 2016 season ended though, Tillman hasn’t been the same pitcher. Something just isn’t right and it hasn’t been since a nagging shoulder landed him on the disabled list and delayed his start to the 2017 season. When he did finally return, in early May, his first outing was encouraging (yet not spectacular), throwing five scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox in what resulted in a 4-0 win. Since then though, his performances have been nothing short of a train wreck.
Following that win on May 7th, Tillman appeared in 23 further games, making 18 starts and eventually losing his place in the rotation. Over the course of those 23 outings, Tillman’s mechanics declined at an alarming rate, his velocity and command both nosedived, and his confidence took hit, after hit, after hit. His 0-7 record and 8.28 ERA over 88 innings told part of the story, however it was the 48 walks and 122 hits he allowed – almost two base-runners per inning – which truly highlighted just how often he found himself in trouble, often being unable to escape.
A free agent at the end of the 2017 season, still just 29 years old, and clearly having had his recent performances affected by injury, it was expected numerous clubs would seek out Tillman during the winter months, looking to sign him to a team-friendly deal in hope of returning to his former reliable self. Indeed, he did receive some interest too, with the Orioles one of at least four teams in pursuit – the others reportedly being the Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, and Toronto Blue Jays. It was the Orioles though, an organization full of familiar faces and appreciative fans who remember the ‘good old days’, who won the bidding war, signing him to a 1-year, $3 million deal laden with incentives.
What’s transpired since, despite it being only three starts, has been disastrous, allowing 15 earned runs, 22 hits, and 10 walks over 11 1/3 innings. Nobody in the major leagues has allowed more earned runs and his 2.82 WHIP is unrivaled. His velocity is down, under 90 mph, he lacks command and is continually falling behind in the counts, and he cannot fool opposing hitters – there’s been just 12 swinging strikes out of his 247 pitches this year (4.86%). The exit velocity of balls put in play from opposing hitters is also of major concern – frequently over 100 mph. He’s not just getting hit, he’s getting hit terribly hard.
Speaking with MLB.com post-game, Tillman said;
“It’s not good. Physically, I felt good. Mechanically, I felt better. I just wasn’t able to execute. I feel like I consistently fell behind and once you fall behind you’re trying to get back into the count, then you’re catching too much of the plate. I got to get better, period. I’m not happy with the way it’s going. I just have to get better. It’s not fair to the team. It’s not fair to the bullpen. I have to pick these guys up, and it’s got to happen now. I want to pitch better. I have to.”
Caleb Joseph, who witnessed the carnage from behind the dish, added;
“I thought his stuff was good tonight, in terms of crispness, but he wasn’t able to put the guys away or get a ground-ball double play when he needed it. Stuff like that gets magnified when we’re not doing much on offense. I know the results aren’t there. You’re looking for that one ground ball, first and third with one out to turn a double play, and get you out of the inning and get some momentum going his way. A lot of it is confidence. A lot of the game is confidence. Hitting defense, pitching. When you pitch with confidence, it seems like good things happen and so you’ve got to find a way to get Chris some confidence. It’s not as bad as it seems out there, I guess. It doesn’t make sense. The stuff is there. Limit the mistakes, get ahead of guys and try and find some luck here and there.”
Also commenting on Tillman’s struggles was Orioles Manager Buck Showalter;
“He could never find his stuff. He came out a little crisper in the second inning, but he just couldn’t get the ball where he needed to get it. He never really had a lot of things work in his favor. It was a struggle from the start. I’ve seen all the work that he and Roger [McDowell] and Alan [Mills] and everybody all season do. When you get to a point like that, a guy who’s had success like he’s had, there’s some other answers there. We’ve got to find them, solve them, because we need to him to pitch better than that. You keep thinking, ‘If he could get a good start under his belt and then take off,’ because we know what he’s capable of. But physically he feels fine. There’s a lot more going on there than just mechanics.”
The comments above certainly seem to indicate that Tillman will receive another chance and in fairness, it probably can’t hurt. While his pitching has been nothing short of atrocious, there’s unfortunately no other candidates screaming out for a promotion at this point in time. Mike Wright Jr. was tried and failed (again) and seems destined to a role coming out of the bullpen in low-leverage situations. Miguel Castro has great stuff and has been lengthened out with some success in the past, however his own early-season form has been dubious at best, allowing runs in four of his six short outings. While Gabriel Ynoa is on the disabled list dealing with a right shoulder issue. Perhaps it’s time to blood a youngster like Yefry Ramirez or David Hess who have each started the season strongly at Triple-A Norfolk?
With a fairly reliable quartet of Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner, and Kevin Gausman, the Orioles are just one competent starter away from forming a very solid rotation. Right now, Chris Tillman does not appear to be that fifth option and may have just one start remaining to prove he’s capable of returning to his former self. If he can’t, the Orioles really ought to move on, thanking him for his services over a fairly successful decade and wishing him well in his future endeavors.