2012 in brief: Turned frustrating first half into dominant second half before missing final month due to elbow injury.
2013 status: Signed for $11m in second year of 3/$35m deal, but will have to deal with lingering concerns over his health all season.
Though this won’t be the last piece in the Season in Review series to run, it is the last to be written. I’ve been putting it off because I often find writing about Chad Billingsley so exhausting. For so long so many people have been convinced that he doesn’t have “the heart to win” that it gets tedious at times to explain that no, he’s actually been a very solid pitcher, and yes, you can still be very good even though you’re not quite Clayton Kershaw. Oh, and he landed on the disabled list this season, twice. This isn’t going to be short.
Remember, things got off to such a promising start when Billingsley absolutely destroyed the Padres in his season debut:
I’m not sure if we saw the birth of a new Chad Billingsley tonight in San Diego, but what I do know is that we saw a pitcher who was dominant from start to finish. He began the game by striking out the side; he ended it by retiring sixteen consecutive Padres until a Cameron Maybin single knocked him out in the ninth after 103 pitches. In between, he allowed just two doubles and a walk as no Padre even advanced to third. Aided somewhat by a generous strike zone for both pitchers, Billingsley mowed down 11 batters, tied for the fourth-most he’s ever had. By the somewhat imperfect “Game Score” metric, it was the best start of his career.
But Billingsley’s always had problems with consistency in his career, so we rightfully wondered if he could keep it up. At first, he could; after three starts, he had walked one and allowed three earned runs in 20.1 innings. The third start was perhaps the most impressive, because it started so poorly:
By the time the second inning was over tonight, Chad Billingsley had allowed two runs to score on five hits, including a Mat Gamel homer, two doubles, and a triple. You could almost feel the internetz hate squadz gearing up to destroy him, claiming that his early success was due to inferior competition and rallying to impugn his manhood/guts/heart, etc – you know, the full-on Jonathan Broxton treatment.
We can argue all night long about whether the old Billingsley might have crumbled after such a start, but there’s no question that the 2012 edition isn’t about to let such troubles stop him. Billingsley bounced back to pitch four perfect innings (other than hitting Ryan Braun with a pitch, which sounds pretty perfect to me), retiring the final 11 Brewers he faced.
So when Billingsley got rocked in Houston his next time out, failing to get through four innings in what became a 12-0 loss, we weren’t that worried – faith that was repaid when he matched Stephen Strasburg through seven innings back home in Los Angeles. By the end of the month, he had a 25/7 K/BB and a 2.64 ERA, and things were going as well as could be expected.
Not that we ever expected anything to go this smoothly for Billingsley, of course, because it rarely does, and May didn’t go so well. In fact, it was his ugliest month of the season, pitching to a 5.52 ERA and an .888 OPS, though he was rarely outright terrible. Here’s a fun example of one such game from May 20, better remembered as the highlight of Scott Van Slyke‘s season as his pinch-hit homer helped push the Dodgers to a sweep of St. Louis:
When he struggled to begin the game tonight, he kept the runs off the board. When he was making better pitches, he got victimized for five runs. Baseball is just a ridiculous sport sometimes.
Facing ten St. Louis batters over the first two innings, Billingsley allowed four singles and three walks, including loading the bases with no outs in the top of the second. He managed to escape the first inning in part to a K/CS double play, then ended the mess in the second by getting Rafael Furcal to bounce into a 1-2-3 double play; he then set down the Cardinals in order in the third & fourth, including strikeouts of Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, & David Freese, and it looked like he’d found the groove.
Yet in the fifth, the Cards scored three in an inning fueled mainly by Billingsley’s error before allowing a Skip Schumaker triple; in the sixth, he allowed two more on three of the bloopiest bloops that ever BABIP’d. That’s not to excuse his entire performance, of course, because he was consistently missing spots, just that between the tight zone, defensive miscues, and well-placed balls, this was a Billingsley start which required far more than just reading the final stat line.
Billingsley stumbled again to finish May with a lousy start against Milwaukee, but then kicked off June by outdueling Cliff Lee in Philadelphia for his first win since April 11. Well, he sort of did that; Lee was completely dominant, striking out 11 while keeping the Dodgers off the board until the eighth, while Billingsley struck out just two non-Lee hitters and was already out of the game when the winning run came across. Wins! He followed that up with an excellent start in Seattle, allowing a single run in seven innings, but then immediately tossed out back-to-back clunkers against the White Sox & Angels.
Despite the shoddy performance in the Angels game, I couldn’t help but attempt to inject some logic into the endless stream of abuse:
So yes, Billingsley was very poor tonight, his second consecutive bad start after two very good ones, and you’ll get not a word of disagreement on that from me. It’s unbelievably frustrating to watch him go through these periods, because you have no idea what you’ll get out of him on any given night, and I have absolutely no idea how to fix that; there’s a not-at-all-small part of me which wonders if he’ll ever change. In fact, tonight’s game was so bad, what with Jamey Wright pouring gasoline on the fire and the offense completely disappearing after the second inning, that I don’t even want to talk about it anymore or think about it ever again.
Instead, a thought question. Heading into tonight’s game, these two Dodger starters each had 14 starts this season. Their primary pitching stats could not have been more similar:
A) 81.2 IP 3.74 FIP 3.95 xFIP 8.27 K/9 3.31 BB/9 1.1 fWAR
B) 86.1 IP 3.82 FIP 3.91 xFIP 8.34 K/9 3.23 BB/9 1.1 fWAR
That’s Billingsley in line “A”, and Capuano in line “B”, and I don’t show these stats to try to defend Billingsley’s performance tonight. (Obviously, these numbers are not going to look so similar when tonight’s mess is included.) I point them out because I find the perception gap between these two pitchers fascinating. If you were to ask a random sampling of Dodger fans how they feel about the two, I’m guessing their reactions would be phenomenally different. Regarding Capuano, you’d probably hear terms like “All-Star selection” and “best signing of the winter”; for Billingsley, of the few replies which would even be printable, you’d almost certainly hear responses like “get rid of the loser” and that “he doesn’t have any heart”.
As I joked a few days later when Andre Ethier injured his oblique in San Francisco, it seemed like Billingsley would be blamed for that, too. After a few more okay-but-not-great starts, we reached the midway point of the season, and I had no idea what to make of him:
I’m still looking for a way to explain the fact that Billingsley has a better K rate, a better HR rate, a similar walk rate, and better FIP & SIERA than supposed hero Capuano, yet has had his results be so poor. I say that not in a snarky way; I honestly don’t know what the cause is. That doesn’t completely excuse Billingsley, of course, because there’s a big difference between what should have happened and what did happen, and the results haven’t been there. Still, there’s a lot of reasons to think that we’ll see a better Billingsley in the second half. What we won’t see, of course, is fans who don’t hate him.
We would indeed see a better Billingsley in the second half, but not quite as soon as we hoped; he was scratched from his first start after the break with elbow soreness and was placed on the disabled list two days later, giving Stephen Fife his first chance. Due to the time off over the break, Billingsley missed just the one start, and returned on a 104-degree night in St. Louis to allow only one run over six innings. He followed that up with 7.1 shutout innings in a 10-0 win in San Francisco, then yet another great outing against the Cubs in a game that will always be remembered more for Vin Scully, A.J. Ellis, & Twitter:
You might think the hero of tonight’s 6-1 victory over the Cubs was Chad Billingsley, who tossed his third consecutive excellent start since returning from the disabled list by holding the Cubs to one run over seven innings. That’s now 20.1 innings in which Billingsley has allowed just three runs with a 13/3 K/BB over those three starts, as he attempts to set the highest VORB score since Casey Blake left town, and I’m assuming I don’t have to explain what VORB stands for.
Billingsley wasn’t quite as great in his next start, though he got the win anyway – wins! – and then he followed that up by throwing eight shutout innings in Pittsburgh. We thought we’d finally found the reason why:
Chad Billingsley in five starts since returning from the disabled list: 34.2 innings, 6 earned runs, 27 hits allowed, 23/6 K/BB… five Dodger wins. Yes, the strikeouts are a little down, but six walks in five starts? Yes, please. On the season, that’s a 3.62 ERA and a 3.23 FIP; the latter figure puts him in the top 15 of all starting pitchers in baseball. Remember when everyone was claiming he had “no guts” and absolutely had to be cut/DFA’d/rocketed into the sun? Me neither.
So what’s leading this Billingsley revival? It’s the beard, of course! Compare that full growth above to the wispy goatee stubble he was displaying in his final start before being injured, when he allowed four runs in six innings in a loss to Arizona. Well, it’s either that or the fact that he was never as bad as people liked to think he was and his quality peripherals meant that his luck was almost certain to even out sooner or later. But mostly the beard.
By that point, I’d taken to calling him “Chad Beardinglsey“, and while you probably don’t need to read a quote of one more great outing, it was his last one of the year, so let’s take it while we can get it:
After seven more scoreless innings in Atlanta today, we’ve now seen six Chad Beardinglsey starts since his return from the disabled list: 41.2 IP, 6 earned runs, 30 hits, 8 walks. Uh, yeah. That’ll work. It was the fifth time in those six starts that he gave up zero or one earned runs, and that knocks his FIP down to 3.21, which is not only good for second-best in his career (behind only 2010′s 3.07), it’s 14th in baseball this year – ahead of stars like CC Sabathia, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Jake Peavy, Cliff Lee, & Jered Weaver. You know what’s looking really, really good right now? The 3/$35m contract that ties him to the Dodgers through 2014.
Yeah: about that. Five days later, Billingsley started against the Marlins but he didn’t make it through the fourth before being pulled. In the midst of the Adrian Gonzalez trade insanity that was happening that weekend, we hardly noticed. But two days later, he was back on the disabled list with a partially torn elbow ligament, and while we held out hopes for a few weeks that he could return in 2012, it never really seemed likely. He was moved to the 60-day disabled list in the first week of September, officially ending his year, and we worried that the loss of a pitcher who had suddenly become a junior-level ace to Kershaw might torpedo the season. (It surely didn’t help.)
Now, instead of dreaming about the new Billingsley teaming with Kershaw and whatever import arrives to tear apart the NL West in 2013, we have to worry about just how long his elbow will hold together. While the initial reports are positive – he reportedly touched 94 MPH in Arizona in late October – the history of pitchers trying to work their way through a torn ligament without surgery is poor. (That’s a separate post entirely, one which we’ll have up sometime in December.) And now the eggs are all in the rehab basket, because while it wouldn’t have mattered much if he had Tommy John surgery in August or November – he’d have missed 2013 and likely been ready for 2014 in either case – now if his elbow gives out at some point in the spring or early season, he’s probably missing 2014 too.
It’s not unheard of that it won’t, of course; Adam Wainwright is a good example of a pitcher who pitched effectively for years with a small tear before it became a big tear, but again, that’s a topic for another day. The odds are stacked against him, however, and it’s more than a little disappointing for a personal favorite who seemed to finally have put it all together.