I was sitting on the beach on July 4, 2012. The Orioles were playing the Seattle Mariners and had called up Chris Tillman from the minors to make the start against the team that had traded him away in a package with Adam Jones four years prior.
I had seen this scenario before. Tillman gets called up after a strong showing in the minors, does okay, but can’t get out of his own way with elevated pitch counts and ill-placed fastballs when behind in the count. Knowing this, I opted not to pay attention to the game.
As I’m sitting on the beach, I decide to check my phone and notice that Tillman is carrying a one-hitter through six innings. Again, I’ve seen this before.
Who can forget Tillman’s debut a season prior, when he threw six no-hit innings against Tampa Bay but had to be removed because of an elevated pitch count? Or his sparkling no-hitter against Gwinnett in April of 2010? He would tantalize us time and time again, but often times looked like a minor leaguer pitching at the major league level.
This time, however, was different. Tillman lasted 8.1 innings, allowing two unearned runs on two hits, with both runs scoring in the ninth inning. While he would get roughed up in his next outing, Tillman was dominant the remainder of the season, winning nine of his 15 starts while posting a 2.93 ERA.
In the following four seasons, Tillman registered ERAs of 3.71, 3.34, and 3.77 while never winning fewer than 11 games, and the only blip came in 2015 when he pitched to a 4.99 ERA that was misleading. An ankle injury sidelined him for two weeks in the midst of 10-start stretch that season that saw him go 6-0 with a 2.97 ERA and seven quality starts, and basically derailed his season.
In August of 2016, Tillman was having arguably the most dominant season of his career when he was placed on the disabled list with the first signs of a shoulder injury that has seemingly set his career off track. He would return three weeks later and even start the Orioles’ lone playoff game, but it was clear that this was not the same pitcher.
The same shoulder acted up the following offseason and kept Tillman out of action until May 7, 2017. He recorded the win against the White Sox that day with five innings of one-run ball. It would be 22 more starts before he recorded another one.
When Chris Tillman was at his peak, he would use a filthy curveball and solid changeup to set up his low-to-mid 90’s fastball up in the zone. He was a pitcher with a plan, and had the ability to execute that plan.
These days, Tillman still has quality secondary stuff, but his fastball sits at 89 MPH, and I’ve only seen him ramp it up to 91 once or twice. Unless he is spotting his secondary pitches, like he did against Detroit in his seven inning one-hitter last month, his upper 80’s fastball simply will get lit up start after start.
The problem is, Tillman isn’t spotting his secondary stuff with any consistency, which allows opposing batters to sit on that pedestrian fastball, hence the 7.84 ERA last season and the 10.46 ERA this season.
At 29-years-old, pitchers don’t just simply forget how to pitch and lose five MPH off their fastball. Tillman claims he is in good health and feels fine. His stat-line would suggest otherwise. Maybe he needs surgery, or maybe he really has lost it. All I know is he cannot, and should not, make another start for the Baltimore Orioles.
What Chris Tillman did for this franchise from 2012-2016 will never be forgotten. He was the staff ace on the winningest franchise in the American League over those five seasons and helped bring the Orioles back from the “Dark Ages.”
In a time when front offices are finally beginning to realize that you can’t judge a player for what he’s done, but rather for what he will do in the future, it’s time the Orioles do the same.
We’ll never forget you, Chris, but you and the Orioles need to move on.