With the big league club sporting a 4-17 record in Baltimore, it’s safe to say it’s been a rough season so far for the Orioles. The encouraging news is that the club has actually received some respectable starting pitching with the exception of recently demoted Brad Bergesen.
Along with four solid performers at the MLB level, there is another pitcher in triple-A currently banging on the big-league door, yet again. Chris Tillman, once the club’s top pitching prospect, made 12 starts in the Majors last season at the age of 21. The pitching depth in the organization allowed the club to send him back to the minors at the start of the 2010 season to put in some extra skill development time.
His numbers last year were OK given his age, but he clearly had some work to do. Tillman posted a 6.10 FIP and his HR/9 rate was 2.08. A lot of his pitches were put into the air (37.0 GB%) and he didn’t strike out that many batters (5.40 K/9). A look to his pitch-type values suggests that he was suffering from poor fastball command, a must-have to succeed in the Majors.
Tillman’s 2010 season did not start all that well. Perhaps he was disappointed with his demotion. Or perhaps he was just a little rusty. He accumulated just 9.2 innings over his first three starts and allowed nine runs. In his third start, he hit bottom and lasted just one inning with four hits and four runs allowed. It was no doubt embarrassing for the youngster.
Something clicked after that. In his fourth start, Tillman went eight innings and allowed just three runs on seven hits and no walks. He stuck out five and posted his best GB/FB ratio of the season.
The right-hander, now 22, clearly saved his best performance for his fifth game. Last night against the Gwinnett Braves, Tillman threw a nine-inning no-hitter. He walked just one batter (former Tigers prospect Brent Clevlen) and struck out six. The fly-ball pitcher also relied heavily on the ground-ball with 13 worm-burning outs compared to six in the air.
While perusing the post-game information, I came upon this comment from Tillman, which was recorded by MiLB.com reporter Daren Smith: “I was pitching around my fastball. I had my curveball when I needed it. I was able to throw my changeup and my cutter. My catcher [Adam Donachie] did a great job calling pitches and I had three or four great plays behind me.”
Tillman had been working on a cutter this spring. It sounds like he’s having enough success with it now to utilize it during a no-hit bid, which is encouraging news. The development of a cutter has had a profound effect on the careers of quite a few pitchers in the Majors, such as Roy Halladay. The work on the cutter could also explain his early-season struggles, although I cannot confirm that.
Tillman was a top prospect even before adding the fourth pitch to his repertoire; it’s encouraging to see a talented player – who has experienced more successes than failures in his career – realize the importance of always trying to get better.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.