ANAHEIM, Calif. — Imagine being a former All-Star pitcher, admittedly coming off a down season but entering the prime of your career, and yet something must be different for you to be pitching so well.
Your best years were derided as fluky. When you struggled in 2015, detractors crowed. But then you unveil this supposed "new" version of yourself, complemented by a devastating slider, in an abbreviated Opening Day start and all anyone wants to know about is this new Chris Tillman.
Tillman's answers might disappoint. "It's not that different," he insists, shooting down theory after theory.
Did he mean to drop his release point? No, the opposite. Is he starting higher on the mound? Well, he's still tall. Only with much prodding does the small mechanical tweak and the crux of Tillman's outstanding 2016 season emerge.
"We're talking about, you know, so small," he said. "I feel like I'm more consistent right now, and I can throw my off-speed for strikes."
The first part points to a tweak in his delivery so minor in his own mind that he doesn't believe anyone but him and the Orioles coaching staff would notice. The latter is all a result of that change.
For Tillman, who enters his 10th start of the season tonight at 6-1 with a 2.61 ERA, a 1.161 WHIP and 53 strikeouts in 512/3 innings, it started this spring with a commitment to a change in his delivery that had failed to take hold for several years before.
Coming up to the majors, Tillman described the beginning of his set delivery as if he had a string connecting his glove to his left knee. Everything had to be perfectly aligned, his knee pulled straight up.
He toyed with pulling his left knee more backward instead of up, and went back and forth between the two for parts of last season. The latter has made his delivery a bit more athletic, the rotation unlocking his lower half to be a little less rigid.
"There's a lot of terms there that make you look smart, and it's really pretty simple," manager Buck Showalter said. "I think a lot of it has to do with trying to keep so many moving parts" intact, which allows Tillman to have his arm in the right place when his left leg lands.
He drilled it hard in spring training, and it's now paying dividends in games.
"I think the first couple of at-bats for a guy are what sets them up for later in the game," Tillman said. "As long as you're paying attention, I think they're going to show you what you need to do later in the game. I think I've been able to kind of read that a little better this year, because I'm a little more in sync with my delivery, as opposed to last year. I was trying to fight to figure that out and not really paying attention to the game. I was just kind of trying to worry about myself."
Even when he was leading a playoff-bound rotation and making an All-Star team, Tillman was so wrapped up in repeating his delivery that he couldn't focus on executing a pitch. MLB Network analyst Al Leiter, a former All-Star pitcher, said pitchers who tend to be wrapped up in their delivery like that can lack confidence. Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace said overcoming that tendency requires "time and experience."
"Chris is a five-, six-year veteran and knows that the time for mechanics is on the sidelines, during your bullpen day," Wallace said. "When you're competing in the game, that's not the time to think about it. You've got to compete. You've got to have the mindset to go out there and make a pitch."
All that occurs before Tillman even takes the ball out of his glove, though. It's freed him to "become more of a comprehensive pitcher in his overall repertoire use," Leiter said.
Tillman's secondary pitches, both those he carried in 2015 and the slider he's emphasized in 2016, are getting results this year. He got weak contact with his changeup last year, and doing it again this year. Opponents hit .317 off his curveball in 2015; that's down to .154 this season.
His slider, a pitch he threw more as a show pitch than an out pitch, has earned him 17 strikeouts this season. Opposing batters are hitting .163 on the pitch, which he's throwing 15 percent of the time. His faith in that pitch is allowing him to use his fastball less this year.
"Last year, all I could throw for strikes was my fastball and my changeup," Tillman said. "I didn't have any spin to get anybody off it. I couldn't protect it. I could get guys out for a little bit, and once they made an adjustment, it all changed. I think I have more weapons this year, and I'm able to throw them when I want to rather than getting backed into a count and having to throw them."
Said Leiter: "I think the broad stroke for me is he clearly made a concerted effort to improve on the secondary pitches. It's night and day."
Tillman's curve was always his primary breaking ball, even if it betrayed him in 2015. But his reliance on that pitch makes his new mastery of the slider even more meaningful.
"It's very difficult to have both, along with a changeup," Wallace said. "It's a work in progress. It's like your mechanics. Most pitchers, every single year, if they were all there, all the time, it would be easy. But they're not. We tell the guys all the time it's a constant work in motion. Especially the slider has been more consistent this year than in the past."
The result of that little rotation in his leg lift and his ability to command his slider is a pitcher who, for the first time in his career, is having success backed up by the peripheral stats. He's keeping the ball in the park this year — allowing 0.3 home runs per nine innings after seeing that number rise to one per nine last year.
As a result, his fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which uses walks, strikeouts, and home runs to calculate ERA in front of a neutral defense, is 2.86; it had never gone below 3.99 in his career. Even when his ERA was under 3.00, the FIP indicated a modicum of luck. But the numbers behind his top-10 ERA, and the result he's enjoying on the field, combine to make for a rock atop the Orioles rotation.
"This year, a couple tweaks here and there, for the most part, and he's determined to make himself better," Wallace said. "That's the way the good ones are. To his credit, he's done everything. He's in great condition, his delivery is good, and knock on wood so far, things are going good for him."