Baltimore Orioles: Chris Tillman Has a Fastball Problem

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 28: Starting pitcher Chris Tillman
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 28: Starting pitcher Chris Tillman /

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Chris Tillman’s main problem is his fastball, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon.

It’s been painful to watch the Baltimore Orioles lately, and it’s been especially painful to watch them when Chris Tillman has been on the mound. His stats on the year are just vomit-inducing – a 9.24 ERA, 6.62 FIP, 2.05 WHIP, and 4.62 K/9.

Now, last year I wrote about what was ailing Tillman at the time, and the main problem was the shoulder injury he suffered. It had significantly lowered his vertical release point, which led to his curveball, one of his best pitches, losing about two inches of drop and becoming very ineffective.

It’s pretty clear how badly his curveball changed last year when you compare the numbers. In 2016, opposing hitters slashed .205/.205/.364 against Tillman’s curve with a .240 wOBA. In 2017, opposing hitters slashed .478/.520/.522 with a .457 wOBA.

So is that what’s happening this year? I thought it might be, but it isn’t. In fact, his vertical release point is right back in line with his career:

Not only that, but his curveball looks just like it used to, with about three more inches of drop on it than it had last year, and so far this season, opposing hitters are slashing .250/.250/.375 against it with a .268 wOBA.

So why is Tillman so bad again? If the main problem was his injury last year and he’s healthy now (which he appears to be), why hasn’t he gotten back to his pre-2017 form? The answer to that question lies in his fastball.

His fastball is bad. I mean it’s really bad. It used to be a solid pitch. In 2016, opposing hitters slashed .239/.350/.360 against it with a .317 wOBA. It’s never really been a “strikeout” pitch (few fastballs are), but even so, Tillman had a 25.5% strikeout rate with it in 2016.

But as time has gone on, it’s gotten significantly worse. Last year, opposing hitters slashed .316/.441/.624 against it with a .444 wOBA, and this year they’re slashing .345/.472/.655 against it with a .477 wOBA.

So why is it bad all of a sudden? The velocity has dropped a lot:

Tillman’s had a fastball in the past that typically came in around 93 MPH with some decent ride on it. Now, that pitch is coming in around 89 MPH and its lost movement. His sinker is the same way – lower velocity and less movement.

He’s also been doing a worse job of controlling the pitch. Before last season, Tillman typically was able to throw his fourseamer in the zone around 53% of the time, and his sinker usually around 50% of the time. This year, he’s throwing his fourseamer in the zone 48.3% of the time and his sinker a miserable 36.5% of the time.

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His fastball is his only real problem pitch too, now that his curveball is back in shape. He’s throwing his slider a lot more than he ever has before with some decent movement on it and it’s been generating a solid 13.5% whiff rate and 52.2% chase rate. His changeup is looking fine, his curve looks like it used to, it’s just his fastball.

The key to Tillman getting back into pre-2017 form is going to be fixing his fastball. That means getting his velocity/movement back and controlling it. That’s a very tall order for a pitcher, especially considering these problems started last year.

As a result, it’s well past time to move on from Tillman. The Baltimore Orioles need to let him go or demote him and put someone else in the rotation. At this point, it doesn’t even really matter who, as long as it’s just not Tillman.

If the Baltimore Orioles want to demote him to the minors and see if he can work on his fastball and fix the problems with it, that’s fine, but as long as he’s having these issues, he cannot be in the starting rotation. Unless we want to see more games like last night’s seven earned runs in one inning pitched.

Next: A Look at the Potential of Pitcher David Hess

To quote an often-used phrase by my friend Nick Pollack at Pitcher List, you can’t spell win with Tillman, and you’re not going to be able to anytime soon.