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3 changes bring Tillman to next level

O's righty's 2.87 ERA and 24.2 percent strikeout rate are career bests
June 18, 2016

It turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Not that Chris Tillman is "old" of course; he only just turned 28 in April. But after parts of seven seasons in Baltimore's rotation, it seemed the scouting report on him was pretty clear.Tillman would throw in the low

It turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Not that Chris Tillman is "old" of course; he only just turned 28 in April. But after parts of seven seasons in Baltimore's rotation, it seemed the scouting report on him was pretty clear.
Tillman would throw in the low 90s and he'd have trouble missing bats, but he'd reliably make every start, get a lot of flyouts with his rising fastball and prevent runs from scoring more effectively than his peripheral stats would indicate. If he was miscast as the Orioles' "ace," well, that was more about the team's inability to add elite starting pitching around him.
Fourteen starts into the 2016 season, Tillman is doing his best to change that. Headed into a Sunday showdown with Marcus Stroman and the American League East-rival Toronto Blue Jays, Tillman is off to the best start of his career, with a 2.87 ERA, a career best strikeout rate and he's made real, tangible changes to make it happen.
So what's different? Let's explain.
He's throwing harder
In 2012, Tillman's previous best season, he threw a career-high 93.1 mph. But the next year, that fell slightly to 92.7 mph, then to 91.8 mph in 2014. That's not terribly surprising; many pitchers lose velocity as innings pile up on their arms. While Tillman rebounded a bit last year, that's nothing compared to this year, as his 93.6 mph is the highest of his career. We saw this on Opening Day, and it's mostly kept up.
Even more importantly, it's not just the average that's changed. It's the percentage of balls Tillman is throwing harder. Here's what we mean by that: In 2013, he threw 19.8 percent of fastballs 93 mph or harder. The next year, that was a mere 8.9 percent. This year? A career-high 52.8 percent of Tillman's fastballs are 93 mph or harder.
How did Tillman manage that? He points to a seemingly minor delivery tweak that allowed him more flexibility and allowed him more force to gain velocity. As you can see in the GIF below -- focus on the ball in his hand -- that compares 2014 and '16, Tillman is not as over-the-top as he once was:
Gif: Chris Tillman pitching
There's also evidence that Tillman's spin rate has increased, from 2,260 rpm to 2,308 rpm, slightly above average, and we know that high fastball spin is positively correlated to swinging strikes and popups -- both of which Tillman has managed more of on the fastball this year.
He's using his fastball less
Now despite all the nice things we just said about Tillman's fastball, it's still not exactly Noah Syndergaard's heater, and we know that any Major League hitter can catch up to a fastball if he knows it's coming. Unless you have elite heat or pinpoint placement, you just can't rely too heavily on that one pitch.
So while Tillman's fastball is improved, it's also important that hitters see it less. Over the first six years of his career, he threw a four-seamer approximately 60 percent of the time. This year, that's down to only 40 percent, as Tillman has mixed in a sinking two-seamer, among other changes. He's allowed just a .206 average on the four-seamer, 30 to 40 points below what it had been.
That's allowed some of Tillman's other pitches to play up. For example, throwing his fastball harder has also allowed him to throw his change harder, without losing any movement. The exit velocity against it this year is down from 90.4 mph to 86.6 mph, and the strikeout percentage has gone up from 11 percent to 15 percent.
Gif: Chris Tillman records strikeouts
He's added a new pitch
Depending on the source, Tillman has either added a new slider or improved upon (and increased usage of) a previously underwhelming cutter. Those pitches can be similar to one another; either way, it's a new weapon that he didn't have before.
It's not something Tillman is using a ton -- only about 15 percent of the time. But it's been effective. Against righties, for example, he's thrown it 117 times and has allowed just five hits, only one of which has been for extra bases. In two-strike counts against all hitters, Tillman has picked up 20 strikeouts, second only to his four-seamer.
So is this the "new" Tillman? Well, the "old" Tillman, before a disappointing 2015 (4.99 ERA), was a reliable enough pitcher, and we'll need more than a dozen-plus starts to see if these changes stick. But so far, the velocity jump seems real. The change in his pitch mixture to give hitters more viewpoints and movements seems real. The new cutter/slider seems real. Tillman, it seems, may be for real.

Mike Petriello** is an analyst for and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.