Chris Tillman's abbreviated start makes you wonder if his arm strength remains an issue - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Dan Connolly

Chris Tillman’s abbreviated start makes you wonder if his arm strength remains an issue

Photo credit: Joy R. Absalon

At this point of the season, Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman should be showing signs of improvement.

He’s not.

That’s a concern.

So is the sustained velocity dip. According to mlb.com’s Gameday, Tillman threw three pitches at 92 mph – from 92.1 to 92.8 – in Tuesday’s 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees, but never eclipsed that speed. The majority of his fastballs remained in the 88 to 91 range.

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Perhaps more concerning is that Tillman is not commanding his pitches consistently. He missed his spots and his four-seam and two-seam fastballs flattened out. He threw a first-pitch ball to eight of the 17 batters he faced. Too many of his offerings Tuesday were hanging in the strike zone with no real movement, and he paid for that. Dearly.

Tillman hadn’t allowed a home run in his first four starts this year; he surrendered three – all solo homers – in 2 2/3 innings Tuesday.

“Chris wasn’t very crisp and just didn’t pitch well,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Couple in the fact that it’s a good-hitting club, (he) wasn’t very good. Goes without saying.”

Tillman doesn’t look comfortable on the mound. I’ve seen him pitch his entire MLB career, and he just looks different since his return earlier this month.

The best guess is that all of those worries can be lumped into one diagnosis: Lack of arm strength. His shoulder has bothered him since the second half of last year and he missed a chunk of the winter and all of spring training while waiting for it to feel better.

Arm strength isn’t just about velocity, it’s about crispness and movement. And that’s not there, or wasn’t Tuesday.

“I’m not big on talking (publicly) about identifying problems. I think they’re pretty obvious to everybody, including here (among media) and fans,” Showalter said. “We see the same things with some of our guys, so we’ve got to figure out why.”

Tillman says he’s pain-free now, and hopefully he is.

“I feel really good, actually. It’s been getting better every start,” Tillman said. “To be honest with you, I haven’t thought about (the shoulder) since I got back here. That’s an excuse and that’s not one I’m going to use. That’s behind me.”

He also said he doesn’t think arm strength is an issue.

“I don’t think so. I really don’t. I think it is more of an execution thing than it is arm strength,” Tillman said. “And mechanical, too. That’s an easy excuse, but when you’re off mechanically I feel like you’re out there trying to search and search and search to find the right one to make pitches and it just kind of snowballed tonight. They came out hacking and never stopped.”

We’re used to seeing Tillman carry his team until the sixth or seventh inning, even when he’s struggling with command or his velocity is wavering.

There’s no doubt Tillman’s a competitor. A battler. He wants to help his team. And, frankly, it’s a contract year, so this is doubly important for him.

But the calendar is turning to June and Tillman’s stuff is utterly hittable. He’s allowed 32 hits in 23 innings.

To me, that means his arm strength isn’t close to where it needs to be. To me, it means he should have spent more time at extended spring training before starting his rehab assignment clock. He made four rehab appearances and had a 7.16 ERA – and yet we were told that it was about health and not results.

You could buy that after he threw five shutout innings in his first Orioles’ start May 7.

But not now. In retrospect, the argument certainly can be made that Tillman wasn’t ready. That’s always a tough call – the Orioles went through the same thing with closer Zach Britton — so I’m not pointing fingers in hindsight. It’s just the reality.

And there’s not much that can be done now – assuming Tillman is healthy.

The only way to build arm strength is to pitch. He’s pitching.

It’s just not with the confidence or stuff that we’re accustomed to. This wouldn’t be a major problem if the other starters in the Orioles’ rotation were routinely doing their job, pitching deep and keeping games close; only Dylan Bundy is doing both nearly every outing.

And that makes Tillman’s struggles more disconcerting. Because likely the only thing that can fix Tillman right now is time and increased arm strength.

Until he regains the latter, you can’t expect him to consistently be the Tillman of old.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. OsFanStuckInNY

    May 31, 2017 at 7:01 am

    The facts appear to state he rushed back from the minors, where he had poor results at all levels. I’d rather see him spend more time at AAA, but it’s not like there is someone down there who is likely to have any better results in the majors. I’m surprised he was removed so early, in spite of the poor results. I noticed he threw only a couple of mediocre fastballs, relying mostly on slower pitches be couldn’t throw for strikes in the 3rd. At the time, I thought it might mean his arm/shoulder was acting up and that was the reason for the early exit, since the game was virtually lost by then anyway, the way this team can’t hit these days.

    Looking forward to them breaking out of this slump. A replay of last June would be very nice!

    • Dan Connolly

      May 31, 2017 at 11:01 am

      He says he is completely pain-free and I believe him. But there’s a difference between not having pain and not having the strength and finish you are accustomed to. He wouldn’t bite on that theory — the man never makes excuses — but that’s my diagnosis as a quack doctor.

  2. Boog Robinson Robinson

    May 31, 2017 at 7:32 am

    Frankly, I’ve never understood why people expect this guy to be an ace? I’m not saying he’s not a quality MLB pitcher … he’s had a few good years, but on a better staff, he’s a back-end of the rotation type of guy. Hopefully he can work through this funk, because on this staff, he’s desperately needed to be a front-end type.

    • claudecat

      May 31, 2017 at 8:15 am

      Totally with you on this Boog. Tillman’s had a few months of relative success spread out over several years, often as much the result of smoke and mirrors as anything resembling dominant pitching. He’s never made me feel confident going into his starts, even last year when he somehow put together a longer than usual stretch of wins.

      My theory on his latest round of struggles? He’s on so much anti-inflammatory medicine that he can’t feel anything. Good in terms of not feeling pain, not so good in terms of feeling release point or repeating mechanics.

    • Dan Connolly

      May 31, 2017 at 11:21 am

      He may not be ace but he has been the Orioles best pitcher for some time. And he often has acted as their stopper — winning games to halt losing skids. I think he is an underrated pitcher. But I also think people throw around the “ace” tag too easily. I’ve been guilty of that too.

  3. woody

    June 3, 2017 at 6:51 am

    Tillman’s an all or nothing pitcher – so i’m not panicking as much as I would if this was another of our rotation. When he’s on, he goes from strength to strength as the game progresses, increasing velocity and getting more movement which translates into weak contact. He’s always been a slow starter in games. He’s at his best from the 5th onwards. Trouble is, when he’s off, all you see is his fairly average early stuff go really bad, and him not last long enough to improve as the game goes on.

    We know he had no spring training and we couldn’t expect his May to even be of April standard, but his drop in velocity among other things is a concern at this stage. Personally, in light of what he does as a pitcher, i’d have him warm up with a couple of innings from the mound before the game begins to try and get his velocity up, and restrict his pitch count to get him through 4 good innings, take it from there,

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