Baltimore Orioles: Why Chris Tillman is Opening Day Starter


Sep 20, 2014; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman (30) pitches in the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

There really was not a lot of suspense as to who would be the opening day pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. It was finally announced on Tuesday that it would indeed be Chris Tillman, who will be making the start on day one for the second consecutive season.

The debate goes on among Orioles fans as to if Chris Tillman qualifies as an “ace” or a true #1 top-of-the-rotation pitcher. Much of this centers around what is meant by the definition of an “ace.”  He is admittedly not the best starter in the American League, but he certainly belongs at least in the category of the top 10 to 15. And if you take out his worst couple of games, he would statistically rank even closer to the top.

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But there can be no debate that he is the Orioles’ ace, even with his record of 13-6 last year. Let me flesh that out just a bit. His nearest comparison from 2014 would be Wei-Yin Chen at 16-6. And along the way, Bud Norris actually had two more victories (15-8), while Miguel Gonzalez (10-9) had the best ERA of starters at 3.23.  But there is more to be said than simple won-loss records, and even greater details to be understood beyond simple ERA.

To begin with, Tillman threw a total of 207 innings, 22 more than Chen and 42 more than Norris. He did have a couple more starts, but it is true that Tillman consistently got the Orioles deep into games.

A statistic that measures the consistent performance of starters is that of the quality start. Tillman pitched six innings with three or fewer runs in 21 of his 34 starts for a 62% rate. Actually, Gonzalez also did so at 62%, though the third best was Chen at only 48%.

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Tillman held opposing hitters to the lowest batting average against of the starters, registering .238. Norris was close at .242, whereas both Gonzalez (.255) and Chen (.266) were above the league average of .252.  Interestingly, Ubaldo Jimenez had hitters only bat .241 against him. As we know, this is not the problem!

Here is a truly amazing statistic. Though Tillman yielded 129 singles, 66 walks and 4 HBP for a total of 199 baserunners at first base, only four attempted to steal against him, and only one was successful. That is simply unheard of!

But the bottom line is about wins and losses. And though various starting pitchers have different ways of being effective relative to WHIP or HR/9 innings, etc., it comes down to limiting damage and giving your team a chance to win. Tillman certainly did this, as the Orioles were 24-10 in his starts. The next best numbers were 19-9 by Norris and 19-12 by Chen.

So how did Chen have the better 16-6 record? There is a statistical category called “cheap win” – referring to victories in games where the starter did not deliver a quality start. So these would be games where the most frequent scenario is having the offense bail out the pitcher. Chen had eight such “cheap wins” and Norris had seven. Tillman only had three.

Tillman also had the most games where he departed the game with the team in the lead, only to have the other team come back and win off relief pitchers. This happened five times.

An area where Tillman could improve his game would be to walk fewer batters than the 2.9 per nine innings pitched. This is the result of throwing and living on the edge of the plate. But cutting the walks would not only make for a smaller number of base runners, it would also cut down on pitch counts and allow him to go just a bit deeper into games.

So Tillman surely deserves the start, and I think we can anticipate another very solid and consistent season from what is still a rather young pitcher.

Next: Covering the losses of Lough and Hardy