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In Fantasy Week 18, owners will get to enjoy the best selection of two-start pitchers on waivers since the All-Star break. This cohort doesn't lack for quality or quantity, but of the pitchers still available in more than 30 percent of the leagues on CBSSports.com, one stands out.
On June 21, the Blue Jays clobbered Chris Tillman so badly -- with six runs over 1 1/3 innings -- some Fantasy owners were probably swearing him off forever. Since then, he has arguably been one of the six most dominant pitchers in the majors. Over a six-start stretch, Tillman has registered a 1.09 ERA and 0.85 WHIP while holding opponents to a .197/.232/.252 slash line. Previously inconsistent in his control and prone to flyballs, Tillman has thrown 67 percent of his pitches for strikes and posted a 55 percent ground ball rate during his hot streak.
Normally when a pitcher takes such a drastic turn in his fortunes, we go one of two routes: dismiss it or speculate on the reasons for the turnaround. This time around, I decided instead to go to the source and ask Tillman himself about the improvement. What he told me leads to me think that he is not only this week's top target among two-start pitchers, but a must-add and must-start for the foreseeable future.
Top pitching target: Chris Tillman, Orioles (at OAK, at LAA, 66 percent owned)
Correlation doesn't always imply causality, but it turns out that the beginning of Tillman's surge in production coincides with three conscious changes he made to his approach on the mound. Tillman said that he moved to the middle of the pitching rubber "two or three starts before the All-Star break." He made the change because he wasn't hitting his spots, but he has been pitching with pristine control (six walks in 41 1/3 innings) ever since.
Then Tillman made a sinker an integral part of his arsenal. In five July starts, he threw the pitch for 17 percent of his offerings and at least 20 percent of the time in each of his last two starts (per BrooksBaseball.net). Tillman went for a change in arsenal because he no longer had a good feel for his four-seamer. By contrast, he gets more of the seam under his fingers with the sinker. Given his healthy ground ball rate and low slugging percentage allowed, it's hard to argue with the results as well as his claim that he has a better feel for his new pitch.
While Tillman is still not much of a strikeout pitcher, he has made modest gains in his K-rate as well, as he has increased his whiff rate from 7 percent over his first 14 starts to 9 percent over his last six starts. A key to his improvement has been lowering the velocity on his changeup, which he has been typically throwing in the 82-to-84 mph range lately, as opposed to 84-to-86 mph for most of the season. The increased differential between his changeup and fastball velocities has enabled Tillman to get more whiffs on his changeup.
The A's are a great matchup these days, as indicated by owning the majors' lowest weighted on-base average (wOBA) over the last 30 days. Given how well Tillman has pitched over the last month-plus, and the fit between the changes he has made and the improvements he has shown, he also appears safe to trust against the Angels, who rank second in wOBA over the last 30 days.
Pitchers to target if you miss out on Tillman: Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks (at WAS, vs. CIN, 61 percent owned); Jake Peavy, Giants (at ATL, at CHC, 27 percent owned); and Jimmy Nelson, Brewers (vs. SD, vs. STL, 53 percent owned).
Reality check: Kendall Graveman entered the All-Star break in a serious groove. Though his final first half start wasn't his best, having allowed four earned runs over 5 2/3 innings against the Indians, his prior seven outings were all quality starts that produced a 1.65 ERA. Since the break, Graveman has been throwing his four-seamer, sinker and cutter harder than he has all season, so making him my top pitcher to target in Week 16 must have turned out perfectly, right?
Instead, Graveman provided a case study in how velocity can be overrated, turning in his two worst starts since April. He struggled with control, throwing 58 percent of his pitches for strikes, as the Blue Jays and Giants collectively pummeled him for 10 earned runs in just 6 2/3 innings. I still think Graveman could wind up being useful in future two-start weeks, but before I trust him again, I want to see if he can rediscover the strike zone, whether it's with or without enhanced velocity. I would also want to avoid him against a similarly tough level of competition.