In case you missed it on Monday night in Houston, Chad Billingsley was – to put it quite simply – the balls. The numbers speak for themselves; in his first career complete game, he gave up only 5 hits and 2 runs, while striking out 6. He had a shutout going until 2 outs in the 9th, when he gave up a meaningless home run. Perhaps even more impressive was his timing – the Dodger bullpen has been wildly overworked lately, so for Billingsley to give them an entire night off was huge.
But this is about more than one night in July. The question that stands before us is, just how good can this kid be? His 23rd birthday isn’t even until next week, and he’s already shown us some huge flashes of his talent.
Actually, let’s not gloss over this point. He’s 23 next week and he’s already having success at the major league level. Is there a commodity in baseball more valuable than quality, cheap young pitching right now? It’s like realizing you have an oil well about to burst in your backyard, and you drill it only to find that it’s coated in diamonds and hookers.
We now take you live to San Francisco for live coverage of Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the home run record! Barry grounds weakly to second, but we’ll be back with 24/7 coverage of every meaningless move he makes!
Ugh, sorry about that. Here on the East Coast, that’s what I’ve been getting every time I sit down to watch a game. Why don’t they ever cover his puppy-eating and satanic rituals?
Meanwhile, back to Billingsley. LA’s first round pick in 2003 who made his debut at age 19 in rookie league that year, he dominated all throughout the minors. In 78 games, he had an ERA of 3.18, with an excellent 10.22 K’s per nine innings. In 2006, he started out in AAA Las Vegas (in the notoriously hitter-friendly PCL), and at the ripe old age of 21, did pretty well for himself: 6-3, 3.95 ERA, more than a K per inning. Called up to the Dodgers, he again impressed: a 7-4 record in 16 starts, with a 3.80 ERA and a 121 ERA+. That’s not to say he didn’t have his struggles; in 90.0 IP, he K’d only 59 while walking 58. Clearly, pitch counts were his mortal enemy, but for a 21 year old rookie, his debut was definitely a success. He even chipped in with 2 scoreless relief innings (1 hit, 3 K’s) against the Mets in the NLDS.
Despite that, he started 2007 in the pen for the big club, ostensibly to learn to focus and keep his pitch counts down, though more likely in order to say to Brett Tomko that they at least gave him a chance to start before he imploded. Billingsley quickly became a valuable part of a dominating pen, teaming with Joe Beimel to own the 6th and 7th leading into Broxton/Saito to finish it all out.
By June, he was moved into the rotation, and though he’s occasionally still had pitch-count issues (113 pitches in 5 innings vs. the Phillies say, “what’s up?”) he’s improved in nearly every area from 2006. ERA down from 3.80 to 3.38. A nearly 1-1 K/BB ratio to better than 2/1. WHIP down from 1.67 to 1.23. So, uh, yeah – I’d say he’s looking every bit the real deal.
How valuable has he been to the Dodgers? Well, put it this way. After not even making the rotation initially, for a few frightening hours last night (when Penny was doubled over in pain and Lowe’s MRI results weren’t back yet), Billingsley was the ace of this team. And hey – if he can gain some consistency and perform anything like he did on Monday night in Houston? He will be the ace of this team, and soon. Because in case I didn’t mention it, he’s a talented young pitcher not even 23 yet.