Chris Tillman’s Smoke And Mirrors
In every auction, the law of supply and demand eventually results in a bizarre price or two. As scarcity at a given position increases over the course of the auction, owners with dollars to spend become willing to deviate from their pre-draft valuations in order to fill a need. In my last auction of the year, one such player whose price I scoffed at was Chris Tillman. Even though starting pitching was especially scant in this particular draft, I was surprised when a bidding war of sorts broke out for Tillman.
Assuming you incorporate some level of regression to the mean when building your auction values, players who consistently outperform their peripherals are the hardest to properly value. Matt Cain and Jered Weaver are two prominent examples and I almost always refrain from bidding on these types and let someone else pay the going rate while I (rightly or wrongly) wait for the other shoe to drop. Tillman is certainly not as good as Cain and likely won’t match Weaver’s peak years either but he has pitched 500 innings over the last three seasons, with a 3.42 ERA to show for it. Was I missing something?
Tillman has never been able to achieve the kind of strikeout rates hinted at in his minor league career, when, for example, he struck out 26.6 percent of the batters he faced in a full Double-A season in 2008. Nevertheless, his 19.2 percent strikeout rate and 7.11 strikeouts per nine innings from 2012-2014 are approximately league average among starters. Similarly, Tillman’s 7.7 percent walk rate and 2.85 per nine innings from are just a shade worse than league average, though this time an improvement over his minor league track record.
You could perhaps begin to make a case for a pitcher out-performing his peripherals with league average strikeout and walk rates with some more context but Tillman’s case begins to fall apart when we look at advanced metrics and compare his performance to other pitchers with similar innings totals.
FIP controls for balls in play, so it’s not surprising that the metric is down on him given his .260 BABIP over the past three seasons. For some perspective, the league average BABIP among starters during that time frame was .295 and Tillman’s mark was – surprise! – right between Cain and Weaver at the very top of the leaderboard. Tillman’s 4.22 FIP is well above the league average of 3.96 and places him in the company of Jason Vargas and Edinson Volquez and behind uninspiring rotation-mates Wei-Yin Chen and Bud Norris. If you’re looking for the sunny side, at least his FIP is better than Ubaldo’s.
SIERA weighs groundball rates heavily and Tillman falls flat here too. His 4.10 SIERA from 2012-2014 is largely a product of his 38.8 percent ground ball rate over that time period, a figure that ranks 11th lowest among pitchers with 450 or more innings. Tillman’s SIERA lags behind the 3.95 league average and again is worse than some members of the staff of which he is the de facto ace.
Looking at his profile over the last three years is gratuitous, as his 2014 was his poorest yet according to several measures. His 9.6 percent K-BB% was 18th lowest amount qualified starters and his 4.26 SIERA was 13th worst.
Lastly, there are some troubling signs in his plate discipline statistics. Tillman pounds the zone and despite a tremendous amount of vertical movement across his arsenal, hitters don’t have much issue making contact. According to 2014 Pitchf/x data, his 51.7 percent Zone% was 18th highest among qualified starters and hitters made contact on 89.6 percent of swings on pitches in the zone, bettering the league average of 88.4 percent. When Tillman does pitch outside the strike zone, his stuff just isn’t good enough to entice batters to chase. His 24.7 percent O-Swing% was fifth lowest in the league. The sum of all of this was a 6.9 swinging strike rate that ranked ninth lowest among qualified starters.
I don’t begrudge any owner for bidding an extra dollar or two when positional needs arise and supply starts getting short. Nobody wants to be the guy who leaves money on the table at an auction but Chris Tillman is the wrong kind of player to stretch out for, regardless of need. His profile suggests nothing but downside risk. The defense behind him was excellent in 2014 and figures to be solid again in 2105 but a reversal of batted ball luck would make his ability to throw 200 innings his biggest benefit, which is really no benefit at all when there is a reasonable probability those innings will be below league average.
Auction season is over but remember this for next year when your draft board starts shrinking and you notice your wallet is still a little fat. When you go the extra buck, do it on a player who has very little in common with, well, any Orioles starting pitcher.