The Best News for the Orioles Out of Opening Day

The Orioles had to wait through a rainless rain delay, and then later through a more rainful rain delay, but in the end, they did walk off to victory over the Twins, on a Matt Wieters RBI single. Ordinarily you’d think the win was the most important thing. Every individual win matters — the Orioles’ playoff odds have now gone up — so it’s nice to have that to celebrate after a day that simply dragged on. It was a well-earned win, following a game that in no way went according to plan.

Yet for my taste, it’s not the win that’s most encouraging. One win is the result of one game. There was a positive sign in there that could mean something over another 30-odd games. There are questions everywhere in the Orioles’ rotation, and their Monday starter faced just six batters before rain forced him out, but Chris Tillman showed something before his appearance was over. He whiffed five of the six batters, but even more importantly, there’s significance in what he was pitching.

To end the top of the first, Tillman retired Miguel Sano on four pitches. The first pitch was a breaking ball that missed, but then Tillman came back with three consecutive heaters. Look at them!

Good spot, 95. Decent spot, 94. Good spot, 95. Down goes Sano. He didn’t get to catch Tillman much, but Wieters had good things to say:

“Best stuff I’ve ever seen him carry,” Wieters said of Tillman. “He’s had plenty of big games for us, but stuff-wise, especially on Opening Day, that was as good as I’ve seen.”

You could argue, I suppose, that Wieters was being influenced by results-based analysis. Thankfully, there are other forms of analysis! Following is a very simple table. You see each pitcher who pitched for either the Orioles or the Twins. You see their average 2015 fastball velocities, and then you see their average fastball velocities from Monday. Super small samples and everything, but as you know, you don’t need a big sample to talk about velocity adjustments.

Orioles and Twins fastballs
Pitcher 2015 Monday Difference
Chris Tillman 91.5 93.1 1.6
Brad Brach 94.0 95.4 1.4
Ervin Santana 92.5 93.0 0.5
Zach Britton 95.9 96.1 0.1
Tyler Wilson 90.6 90.2 -0.4
Mychal Givens 94.3 93.6 -0.7
Kevin Jepsen 94.4 93.6 -0.8
Casey Fien 92.6 91.8 -0.8
Darren O’Day 86.7 85.6 -1.1
Trevor May 95.2 93.9 -1.3
Ryan Pressly 94.2 92.6 -1.6
Fernando Abad 91.0 89.4 -1.6

It’s one game, at the very start of the season. Some pitchers are still building up. But if you look in there — okay, hey, that’s good news about Brach. But it’s even better news about Tillman. I watched some of his last spring-training appearance, and I saw the number “94.” Now we have something to really go on. Now the numbers are official, and Tillman looks strong.

Tillman, yesterday, threw 47% of his fastballs at least 94 miles per hour. Last season, he finished at 3%. The season before that, 3%. The season before that, 6%. And before that, 17%. To look at it another way, we can look at every single Tillman game captured by PITCHf/x. Again, Tillman just threw 47% of his fastballs at least 94 miles per hour. That ranks in third place, behind his first two big-league appearances of 2012. Then you get a game from 2009, then you get another game from 2012. The high point in 2014 was 29%, achieved once. The high point in 2015 was 14%, achieved once. Tillman just threw seven fastballs at 94+, in two innings. In all of last season, he threw 56.

What we know: Tillman’s fastball was harder. It follows that his curveball was also harder, as was the cutter. Tillman didn’t throw any changeups. Now, there are two factors to consider. One, it was opening day, so perhaps Tillman had a little extra adrenaline pumping through. But then, Tillman started last opening day, and his fastball averaged 90.9. So I don’t know how much to care about that. There’s also the matter of Tillman going just two innings, and we all understand that relievers throw harder than starters, because their appearances are shorter. But I don’t think Tillman knew his appearance would be shorter. He was prepared to start and last several innings, so I don’t think that should be much of a factor, either. Maybe these things mattered, but I’d bet not.

Every time we talk about velocity, someone reminds us that pitching is about more than how hard you throw. Absolutely true! Inarguably true. 95 doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know how to place it. We know Tillman doesn’t have pinpoint command, and we know he could use more consistency out of his secondary stuff. This is why I like velocity increases, though: They’re strongly correlated with improvements in run prevention. And I think this is because a velocity increase suggests not only more strength, but also cleaner mechanics, with more energy going right to home plate. You don’t pull off a velocity increase unless you’re really working efficiently. So not only do hitters have less time to react, but the pitcher is also usually just pitching better. Good combination, that one.

It doesn’t mean Chris Tillman is ready to run another sub-3 ERA, but it does mean Tillman might have a strong season coming up. A reliable season, with a run profile more similar to what he used to do. We’ll have to watch him the next time, and then again the time after that, just to make sure whether this is for real, but according to Matt Wieters, Tillman just threw the best stuff he’s ever thrown. If you want to know how the Orioles can get into the playoffs, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Super Nintendo Chalmers
6 years ago

Is it possible he knew a rain delay was imminent and “aired it out” a bit?