Tillman eager to prove 2012 form here to stay
Right-hander compiled 2.93 ERA in 15 starts for Orioles down the stretch
SARASOTA, Fla. -- There are things about Oriole starter Chris Tillman that don't show up in the box score, that are overlooked in mild-mannered postgame interviews, and that are impossible to pick up on in a clubhouse where the right-hander is one of the most easygoing personalities.
But coming off a Major League season in which he went 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA in 15 games, Tillman, 24, has growing confidence and maturity, along with enough competitive fire to complete a comic book-like transformation that draws some unusual parallels.
"He's got a look on his face sometimes, it's a little Norman Bates here and there," manager Buck Showalter said, referring to the fictional murderer in Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller. "Norman Bates is probably a little too strong. You know [Tillman is] listening to you, but he's pissed off about something."
"It's not even night and day with him," said Triple-A Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin, who has worked with Tillman since 2008, of the right-hander's mound presence. "It's a total 360."
Self-deprecating almost to a fault, Tillman "is better than he gives himself credit for" said Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair, who began working with Tillman in 2011 on mechanical fixes -- starting with his posture. Tillman didn't have the strength to hold a good position and struggled with inconsistency, shuffling from Triple-A to Baltimore since his debut as a highly touted prospect in 2009. Tillman's final start in 2011 was a 2 2/3-inning August debacle in which he allowed six earned runs, and as the Orioles put together an impressive final stretch, he was bypassed for a September callup.
That last demotion, Tillman would reflect later, hit him harder than the rest. If he was going to be a successful Major Leaguer, something had to change.
"I was on the shuttle, I think I knew the flight crew from Baltimore, every single one of them, coming from Norfolk," said Tillman, who spent the winter after the 2011 season working out with former Oriole Brady Anderson and adding size and strength to his lanky frame as well as a few mph to his fastball.
"I would say [the transformation], it's a little bit of everything. The word Buck uses is potpourri. A lot of things have come together. It had a little bit to do with working out with Brady in the offseason, with maturing, with mechanics. One of the bigger parts was when we started working on my new delivery, to make it more efficient."
The Orioles put all their pitchers through biomechanical testing last spring, a product of new director of pitching development Rick Peterson, and Tillman's results coincided with what Adair originally wanted to do. And so the overhaul began with an emphasis on adding movement, with a stronger Tillman able to generate increased power, diligently working on drills when he opened the season with Norfolk, and ramping up efforts when Peterson made his rounds around Triple-A a few weeks later.
"When guys are rushed to a certain degree [to the Majors] it's all about results," said Adair, who credits Tillman for putting forth the work to change his delivery. "And when things go awry, then what do you do when you haven't built up a real good base? Now it's all the tinkering and that's where it gets frustrating for guys who have been through a system relatively quick. They get to the big leagues and can't find it ... and those emotions change what you do physically. If you don't have a good base, it's difficult to be consistent."
The Orioles rotation last season managed to stay relatively on turn the first few months, allowing Tillman to pitch in 16 games before he was promoted. He worked through the nuances of a new delivery that made for some frustrating nights and between-game sessions in which Tillman -- who would analyze every start whether he gave up 10 runs or none -- showed just how far he had come.
"If his fastball command at Norfolk wasn't as good as he wanted it, he was really upset," Griffin said. "And then his side day was a major, major man on a mission."
It all clicked on a humid night in late May in Pawtucket, R.I., where Tillman dominated over eight innings, allowing one hit and striking out nine. Whatever that felt like, Griffin told Tillman the next day, don't ever forget it, because you're going to need to channel that. Tillman allowed more than two runs in only one start after that, and he carved up the Mariners on July 4 in his season debut, tossing 8 1/3 innings without an earned run. For the first time in his career, Tillman's Minor League success was translating over and he won four of his first five starts with the Orioles. Having confidence in his delivery was the key.
"I know what I'm capable of now," said Tillman, who won more games in last year's half-season than the previous three years combined. "In the past, I never saw the results. It was kind of a roller coaster. There were highs and lows and ups and downs and everything in between. Now I feel like I can stay consistent and what's most important to us is that your teammates can trust you every time you go out there."
Building on that trust -- which he's quick to point out takes much longer then a few months to earn -- is Tillman's main goal for 2013. Expected to be part of the Orioles' Opening Day rotation for the first time since 2010, he threw four innings in a Minor League game on Sunday, helping quiet whispers that he may not be over the abdominal soreness from earlier in camp.
"I like the fact that he came in this year like he had [Minor League] options," Showalter said of Tillman. "That shows maturity. He's pitched like he wants to get ready to help the team instead of further his career, which is how you should. … He's got a certain toughness about him."
And Tillman, who has yet to pitch a full season in the Majors, is eager to prove that last year's success was just the starting point.
"Does this spring feel a little different? Yes. Because I'm more confident," he said. "I know exactly where I need to be.
"I wasn't mature enough to go out and do it on my own [in previous years]. It's part of the learning process, part of the learning curve, and I think that's part of baseball. You are going to get knocked down, but you got to keep going."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.