Baltimore Orioles Chris Tillman: Lacking a Put-Away Pitch


Sep 6, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Baltimore Orioles catcher Steve Clevenger (45) talks with Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman (30) during the third inning in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

While watching a Baltimore Orioles game recently in which Chris Tillman was the starting pitcher, as batter after batter fouled off two-strike pitches, the MASN announcer said …

"“For a pitcher who has now made over 145 career starts, and given the variety of pitches he throws, Tillman still has not really developed a put-away pitch to get a greater number of strikeouts.”"

This is a very good overall observation about Tillman. He has been slowly improving each year by cutting down on endless at-bats and elevated pitch counts, though his performance has taken a step back this current year.

Tillman is at his best when he pounds the corners of the strike zones, as was done on Monday against the Jays in his very good start — giving up two runs in 7.1 innings. He threw 69 out of 104 pitches for strikes. And though he only had three strikeouts, the high percentage of strikes forced the hitters to swing and put balls into play. Tillman’s movement on pitches was better than average, and he was therefore more pitch efficient.

Honestly, Tillman does not have the pitch movement possessed by most of the other Orioles pitchers. But is it imagination that he does not have a put-away pitch, or do statistics support this general observation?

Let me give you two categories of stats, comparing the other Orioles starters: Ubaldo Jimenez, Wei-Yin Chen, Kevin Gausman and Miguel Gonzalez, along with Zach Britton thrown into the mix.

General Stats – Earned Run Average / Batting Average Against / Strikeouts per 9 innings / Walks per 9 innings / Pitches Per Plate Appearance


First, it is striking to see Tillman — the presumptive staff ace — with the highest ERA of this group. Of course much of this came from his Canadian-based nemeses known as the Blue Jays. But notice also that he does possess the least number of strikeouts per nine innings, even fewer than Miguel Gonzalez. It is also interesting to see that he has walked batters at a ratio rather close to Jimenez. That is never a resume enhancement.

But the striking number in this graph is the final column of pitches per plate appearance. Only Gausman averages more. The difference may seem rather miniscule, but consider the number of batters a starter sees in a game. Say that a pitcher goes 6.2 innings — a good goal for a starter. That averages about 30 batters. Comparing the .19 difference between Tillman and Chen, that adds up to about seven pitches difference.

This second graph is even more indicative of the specific lack of a put-away pitch. It tracks the total number of occasions where a pitcher has two strikes on the batter (could be 0-2, 1-2, 2-2, or 3-2) … noting what happens in this situation.

Two Strikes in the Count – Plate Appearances / Strikeouts / Percentage of K’s with 2 Strikes / Batting Average Against

PitcherPAK% of K’sBAA

This charts the exact situations where a put-away pitch is needed. Note that, again, of this list of O’s pitchers, Tillman has the lowest percentage number of strikeouts. Britton, of course, has the ultimate put-away pitch. And Jimenez is difficult to hit, especially when he commands the strike zone.

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So what could be Tillman’s put-away pitch?  Surely coaches have worked with him on this over the years, and the lack of defining this is not encouraging. I would say that his best pitch, when commanded, is his curve. It is brutal and has tremendous drop and “depth” in the zone. Of course, finding that depth is where the devil is in the details.

In any event, identifying and deploying a put-away pitch for two-strike situations could be the single item that most helps Tillman kick his career up a notch — positioning him where he really could be a genuine staff ace. He has many games over the course of a season where he is very, very good. This could make him great.

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