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Orioles' Tillman keeping faith in fastball instead of inverting arsenal and pitching backward

April 26, 2018 - The Orioles lose to the Rays, 9-5. (Denise Sanders, Baltimore Sun video)

It's been nearly a year since Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman, after working his way through spring shoulder soreness, made his 2017 debut and began what has been an arduous journey to find himself on the mound. He has at times battled his mechanics, his command and his confidence, all in an effort to find a handle on what he once was.

But is it time to abandon that in hopes of finding the most effective use of what he is now?

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As Tillman searches for a consistent fastball with largely better off-speed pitches than he had in 2017, in a league in which it's no longer taboo for a starting pitcher to not rely on his fastball, it seems there's only been a little thought given to pitching off his effective curveball and slider or cutter and making the fastball more of a show pitch than a featured one.

Instead of seeing his secondary pitches as a new means of getting by and turning things around, he sees them more as the way to get to the end goal of an effective fastball.

"The good thing about having good off-speed stuff is if you slow them down enough, the fastball looks a lot harder," Tillman said. "I still believe that my fastball is going to get there. I've seen it here and there, but it's not translating consistently. Once it translates, I feel like normally the off-speed stuff gets better when the fastball is there. It's easy to say sitting here, but I think it's going to get better.

"In long toss, it's coming out really good. When I get on the mound, everything kind of slows down a little bit. But at the same time, I know it's there. It's just got to translate more consistently. I'll throw one 88, 89 [mph], then I'll throw one 92, 93. It's just got to be consistent, then that will bring it."

From both a results standpoint and an effectiveness one, Tillman's fastball has been erratic this year. According to data from MLB's Statcast program, he's ranged from 86 mph with his two-seam fastball up to 92.6 mph with his four-seam, with the average 89.3 mph.

His four-seam and two-seam combined have been targeted for all five of the home runs he's allowed this season, six of the seven doubles he has allowed, and 16 of 30 hits allowed overall. Opponents have hit mostly singles off his slider, curveball and changeup.

According to Statcast, five swinging strikes have come on 160 total fastballs, with 11 on 170 total off-speed pitches.

He's throwing 49.7 percent fastballs this year, according to FanGraphs, which is down from 56.8 percent in 2016 and 50.5 percent last year. For this year, it's basically been an even split. But the results have been so disparate — or at least unpleasant from a fastball standpoint — that it begs wondering what it would look like even more extreme.

Tillman believes a clearer mix is necessary — and the conversation would be moot if his fastball went where he wanted it.

"Fastball command always plays, and I mean, if you have fastball command, it doesn't matter how hard you throw your off-speed pitches," he said. "My whole career, velocity has actually been nothing to me because I feel like if you're throwing the ball close to where you want to, then you're probably going to be all right. If you're missing across the plate, you're not going to be all right."

That's been his problem this year en route to a 9.87 ERA and four losses in four starts entering Friday night's series opener against the Detroit Tigers, just as it was at time as he struggled to a 7.84 ERA in 2017.

At least once this season, Tillman found initial success pitching backward. His April 7 start against the New York Yankees, which followed successful starts by Andrew Cashner and Kevin Gausman, borrowed from their game plan by having Tillman use a majority of sliders for the first time in his big league career. The outing only turned sour when the Orioles tried to squeeze a sixth inning out of him.

Manager Buck Showalter said it's a fine line between trying to find the old Tillman, who could pitch with a fastball that was more area command than spot command and had plenty of ways to survive with his off-speed pitches, and crafting a new one out of the present edition of himself.

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"That's the challenge for him," Showalter said. "People forget that [Tom] Glavine and [Greg] Maddux and all those guys threw 94, 95 when they came up, and for three or four years. They always thought of them as changeup and finesse-y guys. As their velocity goes down a little bit, their pitching knowledge and their ability to do things with secondary pitches go up. I'm hoping that Chris' outing last time was a good step for him. Chris didn't go out there with plus-plus fastball every time when he was successful, but he had a lot of secondary pitches that would allow him to compete and defend himself. We talk about it all the time, knowing who you are and knowing who you're not.

"That's important for all guys, including Chris. But the last pitch he threw of his outing was 92 mph — so it's there. What's driving it sometimes? The mind can be a challenge sometimes. What comes first? The success, or ... Like for all of us, there's not a whole lot, necessarily, happening with us that two or three wins in a row and some good feelings coming up the runway wouldn't solve."

Tillman hasn't let the problems discourage him, though a combination of his own optimism with some real success on the mound could make a big difference in his mind, too.

"I don't think it would be easy on anyone, but if you're going to sit there and mope and cry about it and worry about every little thing, you're not going to get anywhere," Tillman said. "That goes with anything — baseball, doesn't matter what sport, what part of life, nothing. You've got to keep working, keep pushing forward and if you make your goals realistic, it's got to happen."

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