Chris Tillman Returns To Majors, Dominates Mariners

Starter Chris Tillman #30 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field in Seattle, Washington. The Orioles defeated the Mariners 4-2. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The hardest thing about being a parent, I think, is having children.

The hardest thing about being a baseball executive, I think, is having young pitchers.

Take Chris Tillman, for instance. No, seriously: Take Chris Tillman.

Six years ago, the Mariners selected Chris Tillman in the second round of the Rule 4 draft.

The Mariners ultimately offered him a $680,000 bonus, and so he signed with them. In his first two professional seasons, Tillman went 10-14 with a 4.92 ERA. He struck out lots of guys, and he walked lots of guys. He was still a prospect, sure. But perhaps that 4.92 made him seem ... expendable. Shortly before his third professional season, the Mariners traded Chris Tillman -- along with fellow pitching prospect Tony Butler, reliever George Sherrill, and outfield prospect Adam Jones -- to the Baltimore Orioles for Erik Bedard, who'd just finished fifth in the 2007 Cy Young balloting.

The trade would have wound up terribly lopsided even if the deal had been Bedard for Jones straight up, because Jones has thrived while Bedard pitched only 164 innings for the M's over the next two seasons.

But what made the deal look even more lopsided, for a while anyway, was Chris Tillman. Shortly after joining the Orioles organization, Tillman was ranked as baseball's 16th-best pitching prospect by John Sickels; a year later, Tillman moved up to 14th on John's list.

By which point, it was time for Tillman to show his stuff in the major leagues.

Which didn't go so well. It didn't go well in 2009, or 2010, or 2011.

In 2009 and '10, Tillman pitched well in the minors but struggled badly in the majors; in 2011, he fared poorly at both levels, with his fastball a shadow of its old low-90s self.

Entering 2012, Tillman had started 36 games in the majors and posted a 5.58 ERA, with lousy statistics across the board: too many home runs, too many walks, not enough strikeouts. Still, as Baseball Prospectus 2012 observed before this season, "The thing to remember with Tillman is that he's still just 23 years old, and if it ever clicks for him, he'll be a quality major leaguer."

Leaving aside the misuse of the word "quality", there's a great deal of wisdom in that sentence. Young pitchers rarely adhere to the schedule we give them. While a fair percentage of highly touted pitching prospects do eventually reach the majors and pitch effectively, it often takes them years and years.

Last winter, the Orioles went out and got three starting pitchers: Jason Hammel, Tommy Hunter, and Wei-Yin Chen. They would have gotten two, except they'd lost most of their confidence in Chris Tillman.

So Tillman returned to triple-A Norfolk for the fourth straight season. And it clicked. In 16 starts, Tillman posted a 3.63 ERA and struck out three times more batters than he walked.

Wednesday, Tillman returned to the major leagues. He started against the Mariners, the same team that gave him $650,000 six years ago. He threw his fastball 95 miles an hour. He pitched into the ninth inning, and gave up only two runs while striking out seven Mariners and walking two. Leaving aside the competition, Tillman's 37th major-league start was his best. It clicked.

What happens the next time Tillman pitches? If you know that, you're worth a million dollars.

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