MSTI’s 2011 in Review: Starting Pitchers, Part 2

Chad Billingsley (C-)
4.21 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 7.3 K/9, 4.0 BB/9

Billingsley just never makes it easy on us, does he? When he signed a new contract just before Opening Day that ties him to the Dodgers through 2014, most of us roundly applauded it as being a reasonable deal for both sides which give the Dodgers some degree of stability in their starting rotation. Through the first half of the season,that seemed to be working out well for all involved, as Billingsley threw out mostly consistent starts with a few outstanding ones (11 Ks over 8 scoreless against St. Louis in April, for example), though the medicore Dodger offense meant he was rarely repaid with victories, picking up just two in his first ten starts. That meant I was dropping lines like this on a consistent basis:

(Obligatory: 11 K’s, 8 shutout innings, and no win. This is why he’s going to end up 13-11 and people are going to say he was just okay this year.)

Billingsley began June with a bit of a rough patch, failing to go more than five innings in any of his first three starts, allowing four, six, and seven earned runs, though he still got a W in the first one because he homered, doubled, and walked. He turned it around by allowing just four earned runs over his next four outings – just about the time A.J. Ellis started catching more of his starts, though I’m loathe to put too much credit there – and by the time our midseason reviews rolled around, we were relatively happy with him:

Chad Billingsley (B) (8-7, 3.87 ERA, 3.41 FIP)
Over at Baseball Prospectus this morning, Geoff Young of DuckSnorts offers the opinion that Billingsley “should be a star, but isn’t”. And that’s true. 26-year-old Billingsley is walking more and striking out less than 23-year-old Billingsley did in 2008. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because he’s still a very valuable asset and the extension he signed over the winter was welcomed, but he’s also not going to be a Kershaw-level star like we’d once hoped he would be. Again, that’s not to get on Billingsley, it’s just seemingly who he’s going to be – a durable #2 or 3 type who will be consistently inconsistent (3 starts this year of at least 8 IP and 1 ER or less, 3 starts allowing 5 ER or more). That’s not a star, but it is a quality pitcher we should be happy to have.

But in his first start after the break, he allowed five runs in San Francisco. He bounced back by striking out 10 Nationals in next start, yet he bottomed out by not striking out a single hitter on August 10 against Philadelphia as the Dodgers blew a huge lead to lose, 9-8:

As for the bad news, let’s start at the top: Chad Billingsley never had it today. You’ll almost certainly read stories about how Billingsley “can’t pitch with a lead”, but that’s BS: he threw 30 pitches while struggling through the first inning, before the Dodgers even came to the plate. This is the fourth time in Billingsley’s career that he’s failed to strike out a single batter, and the first time this year, but it continues a disturbing trend: he’s struck out just six over his last three starts, after whiffing 10 Nationals on July 24.

While seven runs should always, always be enough for a starting pitcher, it’s also not like Billingsley got a whole lot of support from his defense. In the top of the fourth, he had two outs and Michael Martinez up; Martinez grounded to first, where it went off of Loney’s glove and putting Martinez on second. Worley, the next batter, singled home Martinez for the third Philly run. Should Billingsley have been able to retire the opposing pitcher? Absolutely he should have, but he’s also out of the inning if Loney fields the ball.

The same situation happened in the fifth, as with one out and two on, Billingsley got Hunter Pence to hit a soft grounder to Casey Blake at third – the kind of ball that turns into an inning-ending double play 99 times out of 100. The ball kicked off of Blake’s glove into the outfield, and rather than getting out of the inning without any damage, Billingsley saw a run score on the error and then another when Kuo got Ryan Howard to ground out. None of this absolves Billingsley; nor should it be forgotten.

His seasonal inconsistency wasn’t limited to various starts, however; he would show it even within games, such as in his next time out on August 16:

All that being said, let’s not ignore the performance from Chad Billingsley, who got off to a rough start by allowing five baserunners in the first two innings (one, granted, on a Juan Rivera error), generally throwing a lot of pitches, and looking for all the world like he wouldn’t last beyond 3.2 innings. He then turned it around to retire nine in a row in the third, fourth, and fifth innings, ending up allowing just one run over seven innings. Coming off last week’s “99 pitches, no strikeouts, and unable to hold a 6-0 lead in 4.1 innings” disaster against the Phillies, being able to come back from an uneven start to keep the club in the game against a tough opponent was a pretty nice accomplishment.

And then again in his next start, on August 21:

Of course, all this focus on Loney obscures the bizarre day Chad Billingsley put forth in picking up his tenth loss of the season. With the bullpen in shambles, Billingsley absolutely, positively had to put up innings, something which has traditionally been tough for him in Colorado. When he allowed a Mark Ellis single and a Carlos Gonzalez homer within the first three batters of the game, you could almost hear the wheels turning to get Loney out to the bullpen. But Billingsley got Troy Tulowitzki and Jason Giambi to end the first, and then faced just one batter over the minimum through the next five innings. In fact, Billingsley went 7.2 innings, and allowed just one hit after the first frame; unfortunately, it was a Seth Smith homer to right, following a walk to Giambi, in the 7th inning. The non-Loney Dodgers managed just four hits against the corpse of Kevin Millwood, and that’s how Chad Billingsley allowed just three hits while going into the 8th inning in Colorado, yet still came away with the loss.

And that’s how it went. Billingsley managed to end the season by not allowing more than three earned runs in four of his final five starts, which is good, but never managed to look good doing it. With his velocity down and his strikeout rate heading in the wrong direction, many of us wondered if he was injured – he claimed it was “mechanical issues” – and even Don Mattingly called him out to continue to improve following the season.

Yet as unsatisfying as it all seemed, Billingsley’s 3.83 FIP ranked comfortably alongside names like Jon Lester, Derek Holland, Ryan Dempster, Shaun Marcum, and Hiroki Kuroda. I don’t know if Billingsley will ever be more than he is – if he can’t curb the declining whiff rate, he might even be less – yet nor was this season the disaster that many will think.

Billingsley remains a conundrum, consistently inconsistent.

 Rubby De La Rosa (A-)
3.71 ERA, 3.87 FIP, 8.9 K/9, 4.6 BB/9

Remember, while Rubby De La Rosa was the 2010 Dodger minor league pitcher of the year, he also had all of 8 AA games under his belt entering the season, so needless to say, we weren’t expecting a whole lot from him. But de la Rosa got off to such a good start in Chattanooga (52/19 K/BB in 40 innings) that he started to seem like a viable option as the injuries mounted in Los Angeles, to the point that we actually wondered why Scott Elbert got the call over him in May.

At the time, Ned Colletti claimed that RDLR would be the next man up if a starter was needed, but that he was not likely to be recalled to work out of the bullpen. Less than two weeks later, RDLR was indeed called up to join the relievers, reminding us once again that the public comments of any GM (not just Colletti) are never to be trusted. RDLR’s debut, May 24 in Houston, was notable because it featured Javy Guerra‘s first save and Jerry Sands‘ first grand slam. But let’s not forget how we felt about RDLR that night, when asking who had the best evening:

Rubby De La Rosa, who not only was recalled to make his major league debut, but held a one run lead in the 8th by blowing away the heart of the Houston order in Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, and Brett Wallace?

RDLR made his first three appearances out of the bullpen, allowing just four of the 18 batters he faced to reach base, before being asked to join the rotation with a start in Philadelphia on June 7, which just so happened to also be the debut of Dee Gordon. As you might remember, we were excited:

Tonight in Philadelphia, Rubby De La Rosa will make his first MLB start. (As Joe Block notes, it’ll be just his 24th professional start since arriving in America.) Dee Gordon will likely make his first start at shortstop, though that’s not confirmed yet. (Update: now confirmed. He’s leading off, and Jerry Sands is in there too.)It’s a momentous day for both, and I’m trying to remember the last time we’ve looked forward to a Dodger game with such high anticipation. Ignoring Opening Day or other special events, when was the last otherwise nondescript regular season Dodger game that drew such interest? I suppose we have to mention Clayton Kershaw‘s debut in 2008 – “Like Christmas in May“, as I referred to it at the time. There’s also Manny Ramirez‘ Dodger debut later that year, or his return from suspension in May 2009. Other than that, though? Seeing Gordon and de la Rosa appear at the same time has to rank pretty high. This is all totally unscientific, of course, so tell me where this ranks for you.

His starting debut wasn’t the smoothest thing in the world, since he walked five of the first eleven Phillies and missed the plate with 11 of his first 19 pitches, but with some good luck and good defense he managed to make it through five innings allowing just one earned run. He continued that pattern of wildness over his first four starts, striking out 22 in 20.2 innings, yet also walking 15 and allowing 14 earned runs.

On June 29, something seemed to click, and sure, that “something” may very well have been the atrocious Minnesota offense:

The first batter Rubby De La Rosa faced in the bottom of the first inning of today’s matinee in Minnesota, Ben Revere, hit a triple to the right-center gap. The next batter, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, grounded out to score Revere and put the Twins up 1-0… and that was it. In what was unquestionably the most effective outing of his young career, de la Rosa pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings following Nishioka’s out (7 innings total), scattering just six hits over the day. Most impressively, de la Rosa issued just two free passes. It was both the first time in his career that he went more than six innings or walked less than three, and he did it against an American League lineup. (Yes, I know, the Twins are one of the worst offensive teams in the AL, but still.) Even better, he improved as the game went on. After escaping from danger in the second after allowing three men to reach, he set down 16 of the 20 remaining Twins he saw – one of which was an intentional walk to Revere.

Of course, he still collected a loss, as the Dodger offense was shut out. RDLR then walked just one Met on July 4, followed that up with six one-hit scoreless innings against San Diego on July 9, and then didn’t walk a single Giant on July 19. In the midst of that stretch, we started wondering about how many innings the Dodgers should let the young starter collect; two weeks later, we’d learn it didn’t matter.

On July 31, the Dodgers played a day game against Arizona, a game that few paid attention to as it came in the midst of the trading deadline craziness and the fallout of the Trayvon Robinson / Tim Federowicz deal. De la Rosa left after four innings, complaining of elbow tightness. We immediately thought the worst, and a few days later it was confirmed that he’d need Tommy John surgery and would likely miss most or all of 2012. At the time, we looked into whether this could have been avoided, and concluded that it probably couldn’t have been.

A few weeks ago, I looked at how far the club would let de la Rosa go, considering he was nearing his career high for innings pitched. At 100.2 combined this year, he didn’t even match 2010′s 110.1, though there’s evidence that MLB innings are more stressful than MiLB frames. Either way, I find it hard to blame the Dodgers for their handling of the young pitcher. He threw 100 pitches or more just three times, and only once did he go above 113; even on Sunday, he was still hitting the upper 90s and got six of the twelve outs he  managed via strikeouts. Though we probably will never know for sure, the injury likely happened during de la Rosa’s tough outing on Sunday, and there wasn’t really anything that anyone could have done about it. Young pitchers get hurt, unfortunately. It happens.

The silver lining, if there is one, is that Tommy John surgery is nearly routine at this point, with an overwhelming success rate. Just to cherry-pick two recent examples from Washington, Jordan Zimmermann had his procedure in early August of 2009, returned to the bigs in late August of 2010, and has been one of the club’s best starters this year; Stephen Strasburg went under the knife in late August of 2010, and has reportedly been hitting 95 in bullpen sessions with a small chance that he sees MLB time in September. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s in no way the death of a career like it was for decades, or even the risky procedure it was up until the last 10 years or so.

Remember, the Dodgers hadn’t yet started their second-half rebound yet and had just lost Kenley Jansen to his cardiac concerns, so this seemed like an unnecessary kick in the pants from the baseball gods. While it’s likely that RDLR returns intact, his loss opens up another hole in the 2012 rotation.

Dana Eveland (B)
3.03 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 4.85 K/9, 1.89 BB/9

As I probably said one too many times in September, “Dana Eveland… doing Dana Eveland things.” You remember how we felt when he was signed to a minor-league deal last November, right?

Eveland’s not, you know, good. His fastball doesn’t top 90 often, and if he was that valuable he wouldn’t have ended up on 19 different teams before his age-27 year. Still, it’s a no-risk deal, and the Dodgers have had good success with guys like Chan Ho Park, Jeff Weaver, and Aaron Sele in the past on signings like that. For the low, low price of almost nothing, they’ve managed to bring in a guy who’s entering his prime, has seen action in 95 major league games, and does a good job of keeping the ball in the park (0.65 HR/9) and on the ground (50%). More than likely, he’s ticketed for depth in AAA rather than the rotation, but it’s depth worth having, and a deal worth making.

And that’s exactly what happened. After hurting himself on the first day of big league camp, Eveland had a decent enough year in AAA, getting named to the PCL All-Star team and eventually getting called up when rosters expanded to start the September 1 rainout makeup in Pittsburgh. With de la Rosa injured, John Ely ineffective in ABQ, and Nathan Eovaldi at his innings limit, Eveland stuck around to make five starts of varying quality in September, the first four coming against the offensive powerhouses of San Francisco and Pittsburgh. When I say “varying quality”, I mean it, since the first two were excellent (1 ER over 15 IP), the next two were brutal (9 ER in 9 IP), and his final was solid (5.2 shutout innings in Arizona).

Eveland’s not unfamiliar with getting off to good starts, of course, because his first three starts for the 2010 Blue Jays comprised 4 ER over 18.2 IP. He then followed that up with 28 ER over 26 IP in his next six starts, leading to him losing his job. But that’s really what you expect from a guy like Eveland, isn’t it? There’s a reason he’s bounced around on four teams in the last three seasons, unable to even stick with the Pirates, and that’s because he’s got flashes of talent sandwiched around a whole lot of just not being good enough, as reflected in his career marks of striking out too few (5.94 K/9) and walking too many (4.50 BB/9). You always need guys like that to come up and eat up a few starts every season, and that’s fine. But it’s not fine to start your season off with Eveland or someone like him in the rotation, because if he’s one of your five best options, you’re in big trouble when you inevitably need to use your 6th, 7th, and 8th best options.

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Next! Ted Lilly gave up a stolen base while you were reading this! Hiroki Kuroda loves the Dodgers to a disturbingly large extent! And John Ely looks for Ely-mania at the salad bar of the local Albuquerque Sizzler! It’s starting pitchers, part 3!