Just the tacit acknowledgment that Chris Tillman, he of three straight Opening Day starts for the Orioles and a stalwart of three playoff teams, was in the midst of having his rotation spot come under review was a jarring one Tuesday night.
But the way manager Buck Showalter, a constant defender of even his most frustrating pitchers, has described Tillman’s starts this year reads like a manager who isn’t sure the All-Star form of years past is coming back.
“We’ve talked about it,” Showalter said of Tillman’s rotation status before adding he’d make his next turn. “You always talk about, if this doesn't get any better, what are we going to do? You certainly do. Nobody knows that more than Chris. … I'm hoping Chris can solve this as a starter, but obviously, the return we're getting right now isn't as good as he needs to give us, and he knows that.”
Tillman’s own observations betray as much.
“Not very good,” Tillman said. “Not very good. I was actually really fortunate to make some pitches with some guys on base and Manny [Machado] made some pretty incredible plays, as well as Welington [Castillo]. You’re fortunate to get out of some situations early, but just too many pitches that are not very competitive from the start."
With every start like Tuesday's against the visiting Cleveland Indians, it’s fair to wonder whether the Orioles will again see the version of Tillman that started on Opening Day and anchored so many playoff rotations.
He allowed five runs — all earned — on eight hits without retiring a batter in the fifth inning in a 6-5 win, a start that Showalter said had all the traits that defined his more frustrating outings to this point.
“Some of the same things: deep counts, not a real pitch that he could put guys away when he got counts in his favor,” Showalter said. “Tempo was… not a real confident presentation. You all saw it. The fastball velocity and stuff, there's not a lot of crispness and he's trying to throw it 3-1 slider [to Edwin Encarnación] and left it right in the middle of the plate, really middle in. … It was challenge for him.”
Encarnación’s towering home run made it 2-0 early with two outs in the first inning, and all five of Cleveland’s runs came with two outs. Tillman needed 34 pitches to get through the first inning and had five Indians run the count full on him in 21 plate appearances. He made just 14 pitches while ahead in the count, and 34 two-strike pitches overall, but didn’t record a strikeout.
Much is made of Tillman’s two-strike and two-out troubles, but it all stems from a larger problem since he missed time in August with a shoulder injury that lingered through this offseason and into the first month of this year.
Tillman’s fastball regularly averaged 93 mph in starts over the first half of 2016, but once he came back from his injury, it was more often 91 mph. This year, his average fastball has been 90 mph for the first month of the year, with a recent uptick not providing any better results.
The problem has been with his secondary pitches, which Showalter said have been effective independent of velocity before.
“It has in the past, but his arm speed on his changeup, he's throwing a lot of pitches that are balls right out of his hand,” Showalter said. “That's why you're not getting swings at pitches slightly out of the zone. There’s some not noncompetitive from his standpoint — he’s competing his butt off. But pitching coaches call them noncompetitive pitches that are balls right out of your hand. That’s why some of those high pitches, 0-2, don’t really serve any purpose.”
What’s dropped more precipitously than his velocity since that injury has been his release point. According to PitchFX data at BrooksBaseball.com, Tillman’s release point on all of his pitches is around 3 inches lower than last year, which makes it more difficult for him to get the necessary plane on his pitches despite his 6-foot-5 frame.
There’s always been a slight difference in release point between pitches, but Tillman said he’s just finding it harder to stay in a delivery this year than in the past.
"It’s kind of hit and miss,” Tillman said. “One pitch I’ll hit and the next pitch, it’s kind of not there. I’ve just got to get consistent with it and make consistent, big pitches, my pitches as opposed to making noncompetitive pitches and try to fight back in the count every time. I’ve been doing that, they’re fouling balls off and I’m throwing behind and it turns into a real short start, real quick.”
The easy connection is that it’s shoulder-related, but Tillman insists otherwise.
“Physically, I’m fine like I’ve said all along,” Tillman said. “That has nothing to do with my body, and my body feels great. It’s just mechanics. I’ve got to get back, get back to what I know and what I’m capable of.”
"It’s frustrating, but if you keep thinking about the same thing over and over again, you’re not going to get anywhere. You’ve got to buy into the process and keep working. You’ve got to show up tomorrow ready to start and get better for the next start. I know I’m not the only one, but you’ve got to keep going. You can’t just dwell on all the negative.”