Last season was a rough one for major league pitchers. They were victimized by the long ball from day one of the season through the World Series. Baseballs were flying out of stadiums at what seemed like a breakneck pace, with players who had never broken the 15-home run mark hitting over 35 home runs like it was nothing. The 60-home run plateau was nearly reached again by Giancarlo Stanton, who just missed at 59. It was the first time a player hit at least 58 homers since Ryan Howard’s 58 in 2006. This sudden explosion of power was on display in the World Series, when the Astros and the Dodgers combined for seven home runs in an incredibly insane Game 5 that wasn’t the best game of baseball ever played, but certainly was fun to watch.
One of the many pitchers who was victimized by the long ball in 2017 was right-hander Chris Tillman of the Baltimore Orioles. His troubles started in 2016 when he first injured his shoulder. Then his offseason was affected and he couldn’t prepare as he normally would. The start to his 2017 season was delayed a month because of the injury, which seemed to affect his entire season. Not that Tillman was ever going to pitch like a number one starter, but he finished the season with a 7.84 ERA and his other numbers were just as dreadful. He just couldn’t get right. The problems with his shoulder affected his mechanics and form.
Tillman said that he had “seen a drastic dip in his release point, which caused his secondary pitches to lose shape and at times made it as if he was casting the ball.”
In only 93 1/3 innings of work (19 starts), Tillman gave up 24 home runs (2.3 home runs per nine), struck out 63 (6.1 strikeouts per nine), and walked 55 (4.9 walks per nine). Tillman also didn’t get better or stronger as the season went on; he got worse. He also changed his repertoire as the season went on. He continued to throw his four-seam fastball the most, even if he lost some velocity on it, but by September, Tillman was throwing more sliders and sinkers while throwing fewer changeups, curveballs and cutters.
Another problem plaguing Tillman was that he wasn’t getting first-pitch strikes. According to Fangraphs, his first-strike percentage plummeted to 47.5, which placed him dead-last by a significant margin among all pitchers with at least 90 innings pitched—he barely qualified with just over 93.
Now, Tillman has a clean slate in 2018. Some of the projections aren’t great for the soon-to-be 30-year-old. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA sees him making 21 starts, two more than 2017, pitching 120 innings, and pitching to a 5.56 ERA. It’s better than last year but not good. Fangraphs’ ZiPS projects him to make 25 starts, pitch just over 130 innings, and pitch to a 5.30 ERA. Again, better than last year but not very good.
Maybe Tillman can shock everyone and perform a lot better than the projections say he will. He says he’s healthy and that the coaches have already noticed after one sim game that his mechanics are better than they were last year. Perhaps Tillman can pitch more like he did in 2013 and 2014, when he threw over 200 innings and his ERA was below four. If he can do that and stay healthy, he can definitely be in the running for Comeback Player of the Year.