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Tillman stepping up into ace role

Yes, the Baltimore Orioles hit five home runs in their win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night.

But also noteworthy was the continued run of terrific pitching by Orioles starter Chris Tillman.

Chris Tillman

TillmanTillman allowed one unearned run in seven innings, lowering his ERA in five August starts to 1.26. He ranks second in the majors for the month in both ERA and WHIP (0.65) and could move up to the top spot if the Orioles beat up on Rays starter Alex Cobb (1.04 ERA in August) on Tuesday.

As the Orioles move closer to an AL East title, Tillman looks to be moving closer to being known as a bona-fide ace.

How he’s winning

Tillman is a pitcher who tends to live up in (and above) the strike zone. In this five-start run, he has netted 66 outs and yielded only 11 hits and walks on pitches in that area.

That ratio changes to 34-to-1 if we change our parameter to the upper-third of the zone and above.

The biggest improvement that Tillman has made within this month-long stint is in his walk rate, as noted in the chart on the right. Tillman's first-pitch strike rate, which was 57 percent the first four months of the season, is 64 percent in August. He threw a first-pitch strike to 18 of 25 hitters on Monday.

Chris Tillman in 2014

Tillman also has gotten a fair amount of cooperation from his defense. He has allowed only 17 percent of opposing hitters who put the ball in play (in other words, not hit homers) to reach base.

That may stem from the fact that opponents are not hitting the ball hard against him.

A video-tracking service, which rates each batted ball as hard, medium or soft-hit and provides that data to teams and media, has Tillman with a hard-hit rate of 9 percent this month, fifth-lowest among starting pitchers (the average pitcher allows hard-hit contact in 15 to 16 percent of his at-bats).

Tillman did allow a hard-hit ball to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, one that center fielder Adam Jones made a homer-robbing catch on and subsequently turned into a double play.

Jones has seven home-run robberies over the past six seasons. Only Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez has more in that stretch, with 11.

The quirk

One odd nugget when it comes to Tillman’s performance us looking at his home-road splits.

Tillman is 4-5 at home, but with a 2.54 ERA. His ERA is considerably higher on the road (4.34), but his record is much better (7-0).

There’s still time for his record to catch up to his performance. Four of his next five starts should come at Camden Yards.

Ace-worthy?

How does Tillman stack up against other playoff-contending No. 1 pitchers?

His 3.41 ERA this season would rank fourth-best among starting pitchers on the Tigers and third-best on the Athletics, and it’s fair to say he’s not in the same class as the likes of David Price, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Sonny Gray.

But he stacks up well alongside pitchers such as James Shields of the Royals and Jered Weaver of the Angels.

The one thing that those two have which Tillman doesn’t is postseason experience. Shields and Weaver have a combined 10 postseason starts. Tillman should get his first chance at October glory in about five weeks.