Matusz falters, Johnson recalled – Who do the Orioles call up next?

July 02, 2012 | Hope Birchfield

After the abysmal performance of starter Brian Matusz in Sunday’s loss to the Cleveland Indians, he was optioned to Norfolk immediately following the game. In only four innings, Matusz gave up 7 hits on 5 runs (4 earned) and walked four. With the loss, Brian Matusz was awarded his tenth loss of season and fifth loss in a row. It was announced that Steve Johnson would be recalled from Norfolk to join the Orioles bullpen on the road in Seattle. In his last four outings cumulatively totaling 12.1 innings, Johnson has given up only five hits on no runs and has fanned 20. The Orioles are obviously looking to add a long-lasting reliever with the hesitant performances of the starting rotation as of late. Within the next week however, the Orioles will likely need to recall a starting pitcher. Who are the best two options to call up from the Norfolk Tides? Zach Britton and Chris Tillman (Read on before you send hate mail).

Zach “Sinker” Britton

Zach was the starting pitcher on Sunday evening as the Tides looked to best the Syracuse Chiefs. Watching him come out of the gate strong retiring the side in the first (including striking out two), you can not help but wonder whether Britton had heard of the upcoming rotation spot. In five innings, Britton yielded one earned run and struck out seven. There were times when his control and command were not at its best and times when he visibly struggled. All in all, it was not his best performance but it certainly was not his worst performance either. He exited the game losing so even though the Tides won, he did not register a decision.

In the last four games, Britton’s ERA is 4.80 and he has struck out 13 in 21 innings of work. Britton primarily relies on his sinker with velocities in the low to mid 90s, much to the chagrin of the opposing offense. His arsenal also includes an above-average slider and a below-average (but improved) changeup. Typically, Britton throws his sinker as he often has trouble commanding his changeup. With a sinker with such high velocity, when Britton is on his game, he is almost un-hittable. While pitching with the Baltimore Orioles last year; he split the season with eleven wins and eleven losses. His final ERA was 4.61 on the year and he recorded 97 strikeouts. Due to an impingement of his left shoulder, Britton was added to the disabled list in March and has been rehabbing with the Norfolk Tides since June 6th.

It is obvious that eventually Zach Britton will go back to the Baltimore Orioles but when is the more pertinent question. While he still is throwing well, his ERA is similar to the one that yielded a split 11-11 decision with the Orioles. In the most recent game against the Chiefs, Britton commanded the ball extremely well but he is still finding his rhythm. A few more starts at the Norfolk Tides could make him an even better addition for when down the stretch.

Why not Chris Tillman?

Before the collective sighs from Orioles fans who remember his 5.60 ERA, 7-15 record in the 2009 through 2011 season, let me just say that in his last four outings (21-plus innings), he recorded 27 strikeouts. No, that’s not a typo – He has fanned 27 people in 21 innings. Chris Tillman is a different player this year. Farm teams were created to develop player mechanics and before you discount him just because he’s Chris Tillman, his mechanics have greatly improved and made him an elite competitor.

In his recent performances, Tillman has won his last four decisions with a 2.57 ERA, including one shutout performance in Toledo. His fastball has picked up some stream and reaches 94-95 mph pretty consistently. He also has an above-average curveball and an average cutter. In the past, Orioles fans have seen Tillman struggle with commanding the ball, often flustered with runners on base and seeming to quickly unravel with base runners. This year, however, the Chris Tillman that takes the mound is more disciplined with better control. Often Tillman is overlooked because of his performances at the big club but he clearly lives by the mantra – “Practice makes perfect.” Surely his command and control have improved, as can be seen with his ERA dropping and shutout appearances. Like most pitchers, there are times when he still struggles, but unfortunately that can be said about the majority of pitchers currently on the Orioles. There is a reason why farm teams exist and Tillman may be the poster child for their success in developing mechanics of young players. At 24, Tillman may be one of the future pitchers in this organization if he continues to pitch as he has been in his recent outings. If the Orioles actually take the proverbial leap of faith and recall him, Tillman may surprise a lot of people. The numbers in his recent three seasons with the Orioles are not a good indication of his skill level or his recent development. Perhaps this is the case when it’s the 4th time that is a charm.

Final Thoughts

Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen cannot be the only reliable pitchers in the starting rotation. With the recent departure of Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz, Showalter has made it clear that sub par performances will only be tolerated for so long. Personally, I would like to see both Britton and Tillman at the big league level later this season. They both are dominating pitchers who can throw the ball well with good movement. Who knows? With Tillman being a righty and Britton being a lefty, perhaps they can create a duo that we can deem “Hammel and Chen, Version 2.0.”