Baltimore Orioles

Locating off-speed pitches key part of Chris Tillman's success

After making one of the most complete starts by an Orioles starting pitcher this season, right-hander Chris Tillman harped on how he struggled to locate his fastball early in the Orioles' 4-1 win over the New York Yankees on Tuesday night at Camden Yards.

Tillman is often his toughest critic, but there wasn't much to get upset about in his strong seven-inning outing. Through 25 games this season, it was just the second time an Orioles starter has gone seven innings.


Tillman issued a season-high four walks, including three that led off innings, but when he was misfiring with his mid-90s fastball, Tillman was able to throw his off-speed pitches for strikes to get back into counts. He held the Yankees to five hits, all but one singles.

"I think the ability to pitch when he's not carrying certain parts of his game, which is a tribute to him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "And it's kind of a common denominator of a lot of good pitchers. But the crispness of his pitches has been so consistent since early in the spring. Knowing Chris like we do, the evolution of spring training and how it usually works, he came in carrying stuff from the get-go."


Over his last three starts, Tillman has pitched to a 1.31 ERA, allowing just three earned runs over 20 2/3 innings.

"He's been dominant," Orioles right fielder Mark Trumbo said. "It seems like he's getting all his pitches over. It seems like if you put yourself in the hitter's shoes on the other side, it's very tough to sit on any one pitch. He's getting everything over for strikes. …. It seems like it's just a really tough task to go up there and hit against him right now. The results are obviously showing that."

Tillman isn't known for piling up strikeouts -- he averages just 6.7 strikeouts per nine innings over his career -- but he's now tied his career high with nine strikeouts in back-to-back starts. Tillman said those results are coming from a renewed confidence in throwing his off-speed pitches.

While his recent embrace of the slider-cutter has garnered the most attention -- he recorded four strikeouts on sliders Tuesday -- Tillman has also been effective with his curveball and changeup.

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"I think it's being able to throw my off-speed for strikes," Tillman said. "It's been something that I worked on a lot last year and it never really came along for me in spring training. I kind of had a good feel for it [on Tuesday] and was able to carry it over.

"In bullpens, I worked hard on that," Tillman added. "It's something that [catcher Matt Wieters] has to consistently remind me of throughout the game. In certain counts, he's calling a breaking ball where I normally wouldn't do it. He's keeping me on my toes, that's for sure."

While Tillman has traditionally relied on his changeup -- he recorded two strikeouts, one swinging and one looking, with the pitch as he struck out the side in the seventh inning -- Tillman is missing more bats than ever while utilizing his curveball and slider. Heading into Tuesday's start nearly half of the swings on his curveball (45.45 percent) and his slider (45.16) were whiffs.

That means he's doing an incredible job of keeping opposing hitters off balance with his breaking pitches, which is how he's been able to succeed even when his fastball isn't there.


And while his season is just six starts old, Tillman has been more balanced with his arsenal than in past years, throwing his slider, changeup and curveball all 14-17 percent of the time.

"Sometimes he'll go an inning or two without certain things, like command of the fastball, and then all of sudden it will lock back in," Showalter said. "It has something to do with the delivery and is also why he's hard to hit sometime because he does have a lot of deception in his delivery. But sometimes it gets a little out of whack before he can be his own pitching coach and get back into it."