’s 2008 In Review: Starting Pitchers

87toppschadbillingsleyChad Billingsley (A)
(16-10, 3.14 ERA, 1.336 WHIP)
Let’s get it out of the way right at the start: Chad Billingsley killed the Dodgers in the NLCS. 2 starts, 10 runs, 12 hits, 7 walks, and just 5 total innings. Absolutely brutal, with no argument from me on that one, and that’s all that’s keeping him from getting that nice little plus next to his grade. That said, let’s not let that overshadow his great start in the NLCS (1 run over 6.2 innings) and his outstanding regular season so much so that we miss the truth of Chad Billingsley, 2008: at 24 years old, he’s become a a bona fide ace.
I’m about to throw a whole bunch of stats at you, but I think it’s important to show that by just about every single measure, Chad Billingsley was one of the top 10-15 starting pitchers in all of MLB in 2008, regardless of his age or experience. The names in parentheses are a sampling of the famous people that finished behind Billingsley in that particular category.
ERA: 3.14, 11th in MLB (Peavy, Webb, Oswalt, Greinke)
VORP: 51.6, 12th in MLB (Peavy, Webb, Oswalt, Dice-K)
K: 201, 9th in MLB (Hamels, Dempster, Cain, Lee)
K/9 (min 100 IP): 9.01, 7th in MLB (Sabathia, Beckett, Haren, Santana)
OPS against: .687, 26th in MLB (Lester, Oswalt, Beckett)
I mean, you can’t say enough about this kid. I suppose none of this should come as too much of a surprise, given how highly touted he was coming through the minors and the fact that he posted a 118 ERA+ as a 21-year-old rookie in 2006, but you can never count on young pitching prospects. Really, what’s higher praise than saying that if we’d traded him straight-up for Brandon Webb, Jake Peavy, or Josh Beckett, it would have been a downgrade in 2008 – and that’s before even considering the massive differences in their salaries, or that in order for the Red Sox to get Beckett, it cost them Hanley Ramirez. (Sidenote: Chad Billingsley was as good or better than Jake Peavy in 2008, at a fraction of the price, at several years younger, in a less pitcher-friendly stadium, and didn’t spend time on the DL with elbow trouble. Can we please knock it off with having to hear Billingsley’s name come in up Peavy trade rumors? It’s just beyond ludicrous.)
And, oh yeah – he’s just 24!
The crazy part is, there’s ample evidence to show that he could be even better, and not just because of his age. If you look at the top 30 starting pitchers as ranked by VORP, Billingsley has the second highest BABIP (batting average on balls in play) at .320. The average BABIP is .290; this means that Billingsley put together this incredible season despite being victimized more often by poor defense and/or bad luck than most other top-flight pitchers. Not only that, but Billingsley got off to a terrible start in 2008 – 0-4 with a 6.87 ERA in his first four starts, which many of us felt could be directly attributed to the bizarre way in which Joe Torre handled him through rain delays and relief appearances his first two times out (relieve that horror here, if you must). It’s not that April starts don’t count, because they do, but if you look at his season from his last start in April on, it’s clear that he was even more dominating than the full season stats show – 16-6 with a 2.75 ERA in 28 starts.
There’s other hope for improvement, as well: Billingsley definitely has to work on his control and working deeper into games. Not that he’s wild, but his BB/9 rate is tied for 4th highest among those top 30 VORPing pitchers. On the other hand, he had some pretty great success despite that, and he’s shown improvement in that area in his each of his three seasons. We have yet to see the best of Chad Billingsley, and that’s a pretty exciting prospect. Still, I can’t pretend that it’s all going to be roses, kittens, and Cy Youngs; the fact that he just jumped 65 innings between 2007 and 2008 is definitely something to keep an eye on.
Yet, I continually feel as though Billingsley is widely underrated by the baseball public. You’ve got a kid who’s already in the same league as the top aces in baseball, and is only likely to get better, yet he’s rarely mentioned to be in their class. This is part of the reason I’ve been saying for six months that I don’t understand everyone’s need to throw money and/or prospects at an ace pitcher when it’s so obvious that what this team needs is a bat – because we’ve already got an ace, and he’s making the minimum.
Speaking of which, we’re pretty sure he’s the real deal, right? Can we try to sign him to a long-term contract, oh, I don’t know, yesterday?
87toppsderekloweDerek Lowe (A+)
(14-11, 3.24 ERA, 1.133 WHIP)
You know, if you’d have asked me to describe Derek Lowe’s Dodger career entering 2008 in one word, that word would have been without a doubt, “consistency”. It’s amazing to look at his 2005-07 seasons, because they’re nearly carbon copies of each other. In all three, he made 33-35 starts, pitched between 199-221 innings, had ERA+’s between 114-124, and best of all, look at the yearly WHIPs: 1.252, 1.266, 1.269. You figured you knew exactly what you were going to get from him, and unlike a lot of guys, he didn’t have a track history of stepping it up in contract years, at least judging by his disastrous 2004 in Boston (5.42 ERA).
Well, Derek Lowe in 2008 completely destroyed all of that. First of all, he was three different pitchers this year. You got your standard-issue Lowe, if not slightly improved, in April, June, July, and August, months in which his ERA was never lower than 2.81 or higher than 3.65. You got your BIOHAZARD!!! Derek Lowe in May, when he was 0-4 with a 6.11 ERA. And finally, you got CC Lincecum in September, where he allowed just 2 earned runs in 30.1 innings. Somehow, Lowe managed to pull the second best season of his starting career out of his pocket, which I basically how I described it in the middle of his September run when I lamented his impending departure:

It all adds up to the second-best year of his career as a starter, behind only his 2002 campaign in which he finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young voting. 2008 has seen Lowe set non-2002 career highs in WHIP and ERA+ (as a starter; remember, he was an All-Star closer in Boston first).

Incredibly, many of the same things I said about Chad Billingsley above apply to Lowe as well; Derek had a higher ERA than Billingsley, but his lower OPS allowed him to place 9th in all of MLB. That’s right; Derek Lowe was a top 10 pitcher in terms of OPS, and top 20 (17th, actually) in VORP. Over the last month or two of the season, few pitching combos were as effective as Billingsley/Lowe.
Mostly, I’d really like to call attention to the completely ridiculous season ending streak that Lowe pulled off. On August 6th, Lowe gave up 8 runs in 3.1 innings in St. Louis to fall to 8-10 with a 4.11 ERA.  From that point on, he made nine more starts (I’m not counting the season-ending 2 inning tune-up), and it was unquestionably one of the most impressive displays of pitching dominance you’ll ever see: over 9 starts, he was 6-1 (the one loss a 2-1 affair), with a 1.33 ERA and a sparkling .484 OPS against. He kept it going in the playoffs, going 16.1 innings with 6 earned runs over three starts.
Unfortunately, we’ve probably seen the last of Lowe; most reports have him going back east to either the Red Sox or the Yankees. But can we at least agree that, regardless what you think of Paul DePodesta, the production we got out of this 4-year, $36 million contract was one of the best things about his regime? Smart guy, that DePodesta. Sounds like a guy I wouldn’t mind having for a general manager. 
87toppshirokikurodaHiroki Kuroda (B+)
(9-10, 3.73 ERA, 1.216 WHIP)
Now remember our grading scale on this one, because I don’t intend this “B+” to mean that I think Kuroda was nearly as valuable as Lowe or Billingsley – he wasn’t. It’s just that coming into the season, no one really had any idea what to expect of him. Unlike high-profile Japanese imports like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, and Dice-K, Kuroda wasn’t exactly seen as “the next big thing” from overseas, mostly due to his age (33) and the scouting reports that showed him to be solid, but not spectacular. Besides, the success of Japanese pitchers coming to America has been checkered at best; while Dice-K has been successful in Boston, guys like Kei Igawa and Hideki Irabu were unmitigated disasters. All that being said, Kuroda came over and was a very solid #3 starter – and if you don’t think that’s worth the $35.3m he’s getting over three years, you haven’t been following the state of pitching in MLB lately.
Here’s the thing with Hiroki Kuroda, however. When he was good, he was good. He probably pitched two of the most dominating games of the season – a complete game 4-hit shutout of the Cubs on June 6, and a complete game one-hitter shutout against the Braves on July 7. In fact, he had seven different starts in which he went at least five innings and gave up three hits or less. On the other hand, he had some real clunkers, with five different starts in which he couldn’t even get through the fourth inning. This tendency is reflected in his crazy monthly stats, as well – he was excellent in May, August, and September (ERA’s in the 2′s in all three months), average in April (3.82 ERA), lousy in July (5.24 ERA), and simply brutal in June (7.71 ERA). We’d seen this pattern back on August 15th, when I said:

Nearly lost in the glee of sweeping the Phillies was yet another stellar performance from Hiroki Kuroda – just two hits and seven strikeouts over seven one-run innings. This makes three excellent starts in a row from Kuroda, three starts in a row where he’s given up just one run while going at least seven innings.
Of course, in the three starts before that, he gave up 6, 5, and 7 earned runs – twice not making it out of the 4th inning.
And in the three starts before that, he had three more excellent starts, giving up 3 earned runs over 22 2/3 innings, including a one-hit complete game shutout of Atlanta.
See where I’m going with this?
Let’s keep it going; what happened in the two starts before that? A complete game shutout followed by 6 earned runs and getting knocked out in the 3rd inning.
I’ve never seen a pitcher as schizophrenic as this before. When you get a guy who’s expected to be your 3rd or 4th starter, you expect a level of inconsistency. You don’t really ever hope to see dominating shutouts, but you hope to get innings and never have to dip into the bullpen in the 3rd inning. What you don’t expect are splits like this:
Kuroda in his 7 wins:
54 innings, 0.83 ERA, 38 K, 3 BB
(Walter Johnson + Cy Young + Secretariat + Michael Phelps)
Kuroda in his 8 losses:
39 innings, 7.38 ERA, 24 K, 18 BB
(Brett Tomko + well.. Brett Tomko)

That said, after I wrote this, Kuroda reeled off eight good starts in a row to end the season (3.25 ERA in them), and really, isn’t that what you hope for from a #3/4 starter? Make 30+ starts, and be more good than bad. Which he was, and you like to think that maybe next year can be even better now that he’s got the whole “first year in a new hemisphere” thing out of the way. There’s some hope that he may have gotten that part down already, as he was excellent the last two months of the season and in each of his playoff starts. Here’s hoping that among all the change we’re going to be looking at next year, penciling in Kuroda to that #3/#4 rotation spot is something we can safely count on.
87toppsclaytonkershawClayton Kershaw (A)
(5-5, 4.26 ERA, 1.495 WHIP)
At first I had second thoughts about this A grade; “am I really going to give the entire starting rotation awesome grades?”, I said to myself. My first reaction to that was, “oh, well, Brad Penny’s going to be coming along to drag that whole grade point average down,” but more importantly, Clayton Kershaw is twenty-motherflerking-years-old and was a very effective major league pitcher. So, yeah, he deserves that A. Remember – the grade is based on what we expected at the beginning of the season, and at that time I didn’t want to see Kershaw at all, save for perhaps a cup of coffee in September. Actually, let’s go further than that – I was very against calling him up when they did.

For the record, I’m not convinced this was the right time to bring him up. We all knew he was making his debut this season, and that’s fine. But I guess I’m just not sure why it’s happening now. There’s no new injury to the starting rotation, and no one’s pitched poorly enough to lose their jobs. The front four of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, and Hiroki Kuroda is about as set in stone as any rotation in the game right now. For the 5th spot – when you even need it, which isn’t always – you’ve got Chan Ho Park and Hong-Chih Kuo, who have each been surprisingly effective.

Part of that paragraph may look weird now, but at the time, Brad Penny was only two bad starts into his death spiral, before which he’d been 5-2 with a 3.19 ERA. Anyway, despite my hesitation, Kershaw did come up, and gave you more or less what you would expect out of a talented player his age – inconsistency, but with definite flashes of raw skill. His 4.26 ERA was almost exactly the league average, which might not sound all that great, but again I cannot stress this enough – he turned twenty years old during spring training. When you think of how many veterans there were out there this year who couldn’t come close to being an average pitcher, for a kid just two years removed from high school to do it on pure talent is mind-blowing.
Look, there’s no question that Kershaw’s got the skills to succeed; believe it or not, his 8.36 K/9 was 18th best in all of MLB (min. 100 innings), better than guys like Johan Santana, Zack Greinke, and Felix Hernandez. But that’s not to suggest that he doesn’t still have plenty to work on. Walking a man every other inning is far too much, and his home/road split is baffling (3.41 ERA at home, 5.36 ERA on the road) – plus, there’s the huge concern over whether his innings count was increased too much this year (49 innings, including minors and postseason, more than his minor league work in 2007).
Bottom line, though, is that guys who are 20 just do not make it to the majors at that age, especially not if they’re pitchers – and if they do, they usually get pounded. For Kershaw, with so much left to learn, to be able to hold his own at this level? Let’s just say, the idea of Billingsley/Kershaw tag-teaming the top of the Dodger rotation for years to come makes this fan drool.
87toppsbradpennyBrad Penny (F for Fat Fail)
(6-9, 6.27 ERA, 1.627 WHIP)
Well, I guess they can’t all be good grades. We’ve spent a lot of space discussing Brad Penny around here, so I see no reason to go through it all again. You mostly know how I feel about him by now, so instead, I’ll just point you to some of the high and lowlights of his 2008, as seen through the eyes of MSTI.
June 1 (first discussion of picking up option)

Besides, Penny hasn’t been a complete disaster here. We’re not talking about the Andruw Jones of pitching. Don’t forget, he won four out of his first six starts this year. As recently as May 2 – a month ago tomorrow – he was 4-2 with a 3.29 ERA, having not allowed more than four earned runs in any of his first seven starts. Of course, he’s gone off the cliff since then; in his ensuing five starts he has four losses and a no-decision, having not allowed less than four earned runs in any of them. While again, he hasn’t been effective, there’s something to be said for his just plain being unlucky, too: in the last month, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play, generally considered to be a stat that the pitcher has little control over) is .391, which is completely unsustainable and points to either a ton of hits falling in the wrong places and/or the defense not helping him out.

June 14 (last start before DL)

Well, that happened. After a mini-resurgence (2 ER over 6 IP and 3 ER over 6 IP his last two starts, and just the fact that mediocre outings like that count as a positive should tell you how lousy he’s been) Brad Penny is now rocking a 5.88 ERA. And I have to say… it’s time to worry. Yeah, I argued a few weeks ago that he’d had one good month and one bad month in 2008. But after getting off to such a hot start in 2007, he was only mediocre to end the year. Throw in how bad he’s been this year, and over the last 365 days Brad Penny is 13-11 with a 4.41 ERA. Hardly the stuff “aces” are made of.

July 15 (first half review)

Brad Penny (5-9, 5.88) (F)
Ugh. The supposed “ace” coming into the season – he did start the All-Star Game last year – has been on the DL since June 17, and he was probably hurt for quite a while before that. On June 1, I put forth the idea that Penny had a very good April and a lousy May, so it wasn’t time to panic based on one bad month. Of course, it only got worse and then he went on the DL. Fortunately, the starting depth has been excellent, because there’s not too many teams who can weather the loss of their opening day starter and improve, but it does sort of muddy his future. He’s still got that team option for $8.75 next year which I still feel you simply have to pick up (as long as he can return and show any sort of effectiveness), but it’s hardly a given anymore.

Aug. 13 (just back from injury)

* Remember when Brad Penny started the All-Star Game twice in a row? Geez, Brad – what the hell was that? 3 homers and 6 earned runs in 3 crappy innings, pushing his ERA all the way up to 6.05. With Arizona losing and Joe Blanton no great shakes tonight for Philly either, Penny did his best to ensure that the Dodgers wouldn’t capitalize on a golden opportunity to reclaim a share of first in the NL West. Fortunately, the offense let him off the hook (and when was the last time we could say that?) He was moderately effective in his first start back against San Francisco, although he didn’t look that great – and the lousy Giants offense certainly helped out with that. While his velocity was up a bit from the last start, you just cannot leave meatballs out over the plate when you’re facing guys like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. The question here is: what now? How long of a rope do you give him to work back into shape when every game is so important?

Sept. 17 (Is he hurt, or is he popping 96?)

I thought that was interesting, because we haven’t seen the possibility of his season “likely” being over from any of the local guys, and it’s unusual for a national guy to pick up on something like that first. Besides, in his first time back, velocity was not the problem. Against San Diego on Sept. 10, Penny threw fastballs on 16 of his 17 pitches, nearly all of which were between 93-96 MPH. Now I’m no doctor, but if you can still hit 96, it seems to me like there’s not a major injury there. No, Penny didn’t get an out, but he didn’t get hit all that hard either. He walked one, gave up a single to left, and an infield hit. It’s hardly surprising that his control would be off after his layoff, and besides, if you’re throwing almost entirely fastballs, you can’t expect to be fooling anyone.

Sept. 26 (Penny leaves the team)

Sounds like we’ve seen the last of him, but what a way to do it. Who clears out their locker on the day the team – of which you are the most senior member of – wins the division? I was still considering the possibility of picking up his option next year, which is really only a $7 million decision thanks to the buy-out. But if he’s just going to bail on the team during the playoff run, and not even tell anyone at that, then no thanks.

Oct. 20 (MSTI’s 2009 Plan)

So why am I picking this up? Two reasons, the first of which being, he was excellent as a Dodger before 2008. His ERA+ was better than league average in every year since he arrived in LA, and 2007 was fantastic at 16-4 with a 159 ERA+. I have a hard time believing that he’s just “lost it” – again, barring a more serious injury we don’t know about. The second reason is, it’s cheap. Since the $8.75m option has a $2m buyout, we’re only talking about $6.75m here. Do you really think you could go out and find a pitcher with his track record for one year, $6.75m? Of course not. This is exactly the kind of gamble a large-market team like the Dodgers should be taking.

Nov. 5 (Penny’s option declined):

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I’m not in favor of this move, since I already advocated picking up his option in my 2009 plan, but I still think this is a huge mistake.
With Derek Lowe and Greg Maddux likely departing, Jason Schmidt an eternal unknown, and James McDonald an untested rookie, you don’t think you could use a guy who as recently as last year, I was looking into whether or not he was having the best non-Koufax LA Dodger starting pitching season ever? Because if you don’t think he’s going to be able to go elsewhere and get more years and bigger paychecks than one year and $7.25m (forget the $2m buyout, he gets it regardless), you’re absolutely wrong – assuming doctors clear his arm. Meanwhile, the Dodgers could be short on starters and paying much more than that for a lesser pitcher.

- Mike Scioscia’s tragic illness msti-face.jpg