2013 Dodgers in Review #27: SP Chad Billingsley

90topps_chadbillingsley

3.00 ERA / 4.38 FIP 12.0 IP 4.50 K/9 3.75 BB/9 (inc.)

2013 in brief: Made just two April starts before his elbow exploded.

2014 status: Under contract for $12m, though his role and availability remain up in the air.

Previous: 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012

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I don’t really want to dwell too much on how it was all but absolutely certain that Chad Billingsley‘s elbow was going to pop, because while it seemed obvious that he was just delaying the inevitable, you understand why he tried to push through it. The team was geared up for a big year, he was entering his age-28 season, and it’s tough to simply say “okay, I’ll skip all of that” even if it seemed like the smart thing to do.

If there was anything surprising about this, it’s how quietly it ended up happening. Billingsley didn’t throw a pitch and then walk off the mound in obvious pain, like we all thought he would. He finished six innings on Jackie Robinson Day by getting future Dodger John Baker to ground into a double play, then he was pinch-hit for by Nick Punto…and that was that.

We didn’t even hear any rumblings about any sort of a problem until six days later in Baltimore, when he was scratched from his start and placed on the disabled list not long before game time. I think you need to remember just how truly awful that week was:

So if we’d said before the season began simply that “Billingsley would go on the disabled list with elbow pain on April 21,” which he did today, I think we’d all have sadly shaken our heads and moved on with our lives, figuring that was inevitable anyway.

But if we’d said “also, that’s going to happen after Zack Greinke broke his collarbone and Aaron Harang was traded and Chris Capuano injured his calf and Ted Lilly is already scheduled and so it falls to Stephen Fife to prevent back-to-back sweeps against the Padres & Orioles, of all teams,” I think we’d all stop and laugh at the cruelty of the universe. I mean, what else can you do?

Three days later, he had surgery, and that’s the last we saw of him this year, other than a few appearances in the dugout where he was sporting a cyborg-like elbow brace.

Reportedly, his recovery from surgery has been “stunning,” though we should know not to take that at face value. While the early date of surgery might mean Billingsley should be back relatively early in 2014, it’s far from clear what his role is going to be. As it stands, the fifth spot in the rotation belongs to Josh Beckett, who is also returning from surgery, and we don’t yet know what other moves the team makes this offseason. It’s not out of the question he starts out in the bullpen, either. The Dodgers hold an option on his 2015 for $14 million (or a $3 million buyout), so he still has much riding on the season.

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Next! More starting pitchers!

Keeping the Focus Where it Belongs Tonight at Dodger Stadium

billingsley_insandiego_2013-04-10When the Dodgers take the field against the Padres tonight in Los Angeles, I think we can all expect an electric atmosphere, coming just days after the brawl that changed the season for both teams. Dodger fans, you can rightfully imagine, will be thirsting for revenge, both real or imagined. As Jon Weisman eloquently pointed out recently, cheering for blood at Dodger Stadium with the recent history there is unseemly at best; vile at worst.

But Zack Greinke won’t be in the game, and neither will Carlos Quentin. It’ll be Chad Billingsley on the hill when (most likely) Everth Cabrera steps into the box to open the game, and I think you can see where this is going…

Those two tweets, pulled at random out of dozens or hundreds like it, may refer to Billingsley specifically going at Quentin, but Quentin’s absence from the game won’t change the prevailing opinion of thousands of Dodger fans. Despite the fact that Billingsley had nothing to do with anything and neither did Cabrera, if that first pitch isn’t inside, the boos are going to rain down. Billingsley is going to be accused of “not sticking up for his teammates,” or “being a wimp” — we all know much stronger vernacular is going to be used in reality — and once again, the focus will be taken away from where it belongs: winning a baseball game against an inferior opponent. Fans are actually looking to buy Dodgers tickets just to witness the fireworks.

It’s almost unfortunate that it’s Billingsley on the mound and not anyone else, because he’s always been a target for this sort of thing. Yet people don’t even know why they think that about him, and few recall that it’s all because Bill Plaschke wrote yet another in a long career of idiotic, indefensible articles back in 2008, suggesting that a then 24-year-old Billingsley was lacking something in the manhood department for failing to throw at Phillies hitters after Brett Myers had done the same to Dodger batters.

What was lost, then and now, is that it was Game 2 of the NLCS with the Dodgers having already dropped Game 1, and Billingsley was just a bit more worried on, you know, getting the Dodgers to the World Series. He was pitching poorly enough as it was — he was yanked in the third inning with eight runs to his ledger — and yet the main concern was whether he’d “send a message”. Going on five years later, that’s somehow grown into a reputation, one that he’s unfairly worn.

Billingsley isn’t going to throw at Cabrera tonight, as he’s already made very clear in the press, or anyone else for that matter. That’s not because he’s less of a man. He won’t do it because he has half a brain in his head, and there’s almost no way this game gets going without the umpires pre-warning both benches. That means that if the umps even sniff the beginning of trouble, ejections are coming immediately. You want Billingsley to send a message? Then what you’re really saying is you want 8.2 innings out of the bullpen, and for Ted Lilly or Stephen Fife to make a start because Billingsley’s been suspended. That’s not good baseball; that’s foolish saber-rattling.

If you want a wrestling match, go watch the WWE. If you have the undying need to see someone you don’t know “prove his manhood,” well, you may have deeper problems than I can help you with. For me, the best revenge is the offense breaking out and the Dodgers crushing this team 17-0.

So How Are the Dodgers Going to Make Room for Chad Billingsley?

billingsley_looksChad Billingsley is scheduled to make his season debut for the Dodgers on Wednesday in San Diego, since he had no problems in his rehab start for Rancho Cucamonga on Thursday, and that’s very good news. For many teams, a trio of Billingsley, Josh Beckett, and Hyun-jin Ryu would be their best three starters; for the Dodgers, it’s merely the guys we watch while we wait for Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke to get their turns again.

But of course, the real question is how exactly the Dodgers expect to make room for him on the active roster, and that’s an obvious problem with no obvious solution. There’s an argument to be made that Jerry Hairston, Skip Schumaker, Nick Punto, Justin Sellers, and Juan Uribe are all basically the same player, and that’s fair, but it’s probably not relevant here. It’s difficult to see the club shrinking their bench and going to 13 pitchers, especially when Don Mattingly seems hesitant to push Carl Crawford too hard.

That means that, barring an unexpected injury, one of the eight current relievers have to go, and I think we all know it’s not going to be Brandon League, Kenley Jansen, J.P. Howell, or Ronald Belisario. It’s probably not going to be Matt Guerrier either, but hey, a man can dream. No, in order to get Billingsley on the roster, either Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, or Paco Rodriguez is going to be shown the door.

I include Rodriguez there because he has options remaining, but I don’t think it will be him — nor should it be. The team obviously liked him enough to take him over Kevin Gregg in the first place, and he’s done nothing in two perfect appearances to indicate that the wrong choice was made.

So as we’ve expected all along, this is going to come down to Capuano or Harang, neither of whom has gotten into a game so far. (I’m ignoring, for the moment, Ted Lilly, who gave up three homers for Rancho Cucamonga last night and isn’t eligible to come off the disabled list yet anyway, though we’ll be having this conversation again in a week or so.) As Steve Dilbeck writes, neither Capuano nor Harang are particularly thrilled with their situation, and the longer they sit unused in the bullpen, the harder it will be for another team to see them as a rotation option.

Of course, even if the Dodgers are willing to trade, there’s not many options that don’t end with the club getting pennies on the dollar. No team has suffered serious rotation injuries thus far other than the Mets, who are missing both Shaun Marcum and Johan Santana, and as a team that isn’t contending anyway who will soon make room for Zack Wheeler, they may not be interested regardless. When you look at other clubs with rotation problems, you find the Astros & Marlins — who aren’t fits for mediocre veterans — and the Twins, who have one of their better pitchers in Scott Diamond returning later this month.

So how does this all end? I can’t say I know. All we can say with a large amount of certainty is that either Capuano or (more likely) Harang is likely in their final days as a Dodger, and this situation can’t get resolved soon enough.

Pitching Injuries Beginning to Pile Up in Dodgers Camp

After a relatively uneventful first month of camp, health-wise, all of a sudden there’s a variety of bumps and bruises hitting the pitching staff all at once. Going down the list…

** Zack Greinke‘s right elbow is giving him trouble.

This is obviously the biggest concern, and it might cause him to miss his scheduled start tomorrow against the Brewers. Ken Gurnick has more:

Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke is questionable for his scheduled start Monday because of continued elbow discomfort. Greinke missed a bullpen session nine days ago because of elbow stiffness, missed a start four days ago because of the flu, then threw an impressive bullpen session on Friday.

But the discomfort in the back of his elbow has persisted and — with seven other starters in the current rotation — club officials are considering holding him out for precautionary reasons. Doctors have ruled out serious injuries such as ligament damage. Greinke has told the club he’s dealt with similar elbow issues in the past that never kept him from missing a start.

For the moment, I think we’re all unsure what to make of this. Greinke’s always been a model of health, with his only trip to the disabled list for a physical problem coming as a result of his infamous basketball accident in 2011. The fact that his Friday bullpen session was “impressive” and that Greinke claims to have deal with this before seem to be encouraging, I suppose. At this point, it’s difficult to draw the line between an actual problem and the appropriate amount of spring caution, though it’s not great that the season starts in three weeks and Greinke’s pitched just twice.

** Chad Billingsley has a sore groin…

From the same Gurnick piece, Billingsley has a sore muscle on his right side, which is great if only in that we’re talking about Billingsley’s health in March and it’s not due to his ticking time bomb of an elbow. He’s expected to start on Wednesday (in a minor league game, since the Dodgers are off that day), and I don’t imagine this is anything all that serious.

92topps_javyguerra** ..and so does Javy Guerra.

The general thought is that this is why he pitched poorly in a minor league game against the Reds on Saturday. This is also not thought to be serious, but Guerra really, really can’t afford any missed time or poor performances, injury-related or not. As the days go on without any movement to resolve the starting pitching glut, it’s becoming more and more likely that the Dodgers will have to start the season with not one but two (at least) extra starters in the bullpen. If that’s the case, and considering that Brandon League, Kenley Jansen, Ronald Belisario, & J.P Howell are all but guaranteed to be there, that’s six bullpen spots spoken for already. For pitchers with options remaining like Guerra, Paco Rodriguez, & Shawn Tolleson, it might be even more difficult to win that last job than non-roster guys like Kevin Gregg, Mark Lowe, & Peter Moylan — even if they’re more deserving — because Ned Colletti might prefer to keep the optionable types on the farm rather than lose the NRIs to any opt-out ability.

** Matt Palmer doesn’t have such worries, because he’s going to miss 6-8 weeks due to knee surgery. 

Palmer apparently injured his left meniscus while simply walking, though Don Mattingly pointed out that if that was the case, it was likely to go on him at some point anyway. Palmer had no chance to make the team in the first place and looked awful in camp (despite a 3.60 ERA, because so many runs were unearned), so this doesn’t affect the big club that much. Where it might have an impact is in Albuquerque, where Palmer was expected to join Stephen Fife, Fabio Castro, and perhaps Matt Magill in the rotation. That was already an incredibly thin group, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Isotopes plan to staff that out until Palmer is ready in May.

Chad Billingsley: Delaying the Inevitable?

billingsley_looksThe Dodgers, as you may have heard once or twice or twenty times this winter, have a whopping eight starting pitchers under contract for 2013. There’s Clayton Kershaw & Zack GreinkeChad Billingsley & Hyun-jin Ryu & Josh Beckett & Ted Lilly & Aaron Harang & Chris Capuano & lions & bears. Oh my!

At the moment, there’s only two things we can say about the 2013 rotation with absolute certainty: first, at least one of those guys is getting traded before Opening Day, if not more than one, though I’ll admit I’m more than a little surprised it hasn’t happened already. That’s most likely going to be Capuano and/or Harang, assuming that Lilly’s cost and health make him untradable.

Second, and much more importantly: no one has any idea whatsoever what to expect from Chad Billingsley.

This isn’t the usual kind of “what kind of pitcher is Chad Billingsley” talk, which seems to be endless about a pitcher who has somehow been both underrated and underachieving simultaneously. This time, it’s “wait, he’s really going to try to pitch through a partially torn elbow ligament?” That’s the injury that ended what had been a dominant stretch for him last year, given that he’d allowed just six earned runs in 41.2 innings over six starts before leaving early against Miami on August 24. He was never seen again, had a pair of platelet-rich plasma injections in the elbow, and decided to attempt to rehab the elbow rather than submit to Tommy John surgery.

Ken Gurnick provided an update on Billingsley earlier this month:

He was shut down a month after the injections and resumed throwing to the point where he hit 94 mph in a two-inning simulated game in November. He took a month off and resumed playing catch in December.”Physically, Chad’s doing great, and he’s excited about the year,” said Stewart. “He sounds confident. I’m not in his head, but he sounds like he’s relieved that the throwing program worked out well. He’s pain-free. He said he’s right where he needs to be.”

Taken at face value, that’s incredibly promising, but it’s also an enormous risk. If Billingsley had gone under the knife in late 2012, he’d likely have missed all of the upcoming season but (probably) have been ready to go in 2014. By waiting, if the elbow goes out in spring training or during the season, not only is 2013 gone, but 2014 is as well.

Unfortunately for Billingsley, the history of pitchers attempting to rehab a partially torn (or “sprained”, since a sprain is a tear) UCL is poor at best. Back in 2010, Baseball Prospectus looked at exactly this issue:

As Dawkins wrote elsewhere, “The UCL does not completely heal on its own ever. Without surgery, the area is only stabilized by two methods. First, the elbow can be strengthened up to the point where the muscles take up the slack for the lack of ligament stability. The other method is that scar tissue is built up and the muscles are also strengthened. Regardless neither of these actually heal the tissue of the ligament, they merely control the symptom of instability.” According to BP’s injury expert, Will Carroll, doctors usually recommend surgery for a tear of any degree over 25 percent, though some will go as high as a third.

As Dawkins noted, “The ligament itself never heals itself to the point where it was before and therefore is basically a ticking time bomb.”

Now clearly I’m not a doctor, and even if I was I have no access to Billingsley’s medical records, so it’s impossible for us to know the specifics of his injury. Still, recent history is littered with the tattered elbows of those who attempted to pitch through a bad joint rather than get it repaired immediately. Going back to the BP piece…

Jesse Litsch pitched his last game of 2009 on April 13, but didn’t undergo Tommy John surgery until two months later. After the decision to operate was made, Jays manager Cito Gaston remarked, “[The elbow] just kept bothering him. He went back to Florida, he visited [Dr. James] Andrews twice … you add up the months and it looks like he won’t be back for Opening Day (2010), so that’s not good news.” As Gaston feared, Litsch didn’t make his return until the following June. Two months without Litsch is no great loss to a team ticketed for fourth place, but with another pitcher in another place, the impact of an absence of equivalent length can be measured in the millions.

Pat Neshek is another pitcher on my list who stands out for being slow to the operating table. In May, 2008, Neshek was diagnosed with a partial UCL tear, and rest and rehab were prescribed. Six months later, on the verge of completing his rehab, Neshek experienced discomfort in the same elbow, and an MRI revealed more extensive damage, which caused something of a stir in medhead circles. As a result of the delay, Neshek missed not only the rest of 2008, but all of 2009, as well.

Chris Capuano experienced elbow soreness in mid-March of ’09, received a diagnosis of a torn UCL, saw Andrews for a second opinion, and still decided to rest for a month before undergoing surgery, which he could no longer avoid by mid-May. Capuano was already a veteran of a prior TJ surgery. Perhaps his reluctance to succumb to the inevitable for a second time was an understandable byproduct of his suffering the first time around. A host of other pitchers followed similar trajectories, spiraling ever closer to a long-term DL stint while time ticked away.

There’s plenty more where that came from, as a few minutes of Googling will show. High schooler Lucas Giolito sprained his elbow in March of last year, ending his high school career and knocking him out of an nearly-certain top-ten draft selection. After attempting to rehab, he made it through just two minor-league innings with Washington before having surgery in August, likely delaying his real pro debut until 2014. Toronto’s Drew Hutchison left a June start last year with elbow pain; after weeks of attempting to rehab, he had surgery in August. San Diego’s Cory Luebke spent more than a month trying to avoid surgery last year; he got the zipper in late May and is likely to miss most of 2013.

The list goes on and on. In August of 2011, MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger published an article that indicated Kyle Gibson would “avoid Tommy John surgery”; he had surgery on September 7. In 2006, another Twin, Francisco Liriano, attempted to fight through elbow problems of his own:

On August 1, 2006, Liriano was scratched from his scheduled August 2 start because of forearm inflammation after a bullpen session. He missed one start before resuming bullpen work without pain, but was placed on the disabled list after continued arm pain during his last start on August 7, 2006. Liriano began a rehabilitation program on August 22, and threw off a mound for the first time on August 30, throwing only his fastball and changeup, and said that he would like to pitch his breaking ball later that week. Liriano made a rehab start for the Rochester Red Wings on September 9, throwing 40 pitches for four strikeouts and one walk in three shutout, hitless innings. After the game, Liriano reported feeling no pain in his elbow and was reactivated by the Twins.

Liriano then had Tommy John surgery in November and missed all of 2007. We could go on for weeks with similar examples – J.J. PutzFelipe Paulino. Eric Gagne, but the point is pretty clear. By all indications, it’s very rare for a pitcher to have a partial elbow tear and be able to successfully pitch through it, and the general outcome is that they simply delay their recovery time.

To be fair, there have been a few — very few — examples where this has worked. Former Dodger Takashi Saito missed the second half of 2008 with an elbow sprain and chose PRP injections & rehab over surgery, and he pitched parts of four more seasons in the bigs; Boston reliever Scott Atchison is attempting to do the same. However, even those examples are difficult comparables to Billingsley given that each were relievers who needed to be available only for an inning at a time, and since both were in their late 30s — Tommy John surgery at that point might be a career-ender, clearly influencing their choice.

The two best-case examples for Billingsley — starting pitchers who were able to pitch through a similar elbow injury — seem to be Adam Wainwright & Ervin Santana. Wainwright missed most of his age-22 season in the minors in 2004 due to an elbow sprain, but managed to pitch 874 very good big-league innings — including top-3 Cy Young finishes in 2009 & 2010 — before his elbow finally popped prior to 2011. Santana represents the other danger, because after missing months of 2009 with an elbow sprain, he managed to avoid the knife and has made 96 starts over the last three seasons. However, he hasn’t been the same pitcher; in 2007-08, he struck out 8.3 per nine, a number that dropped to 6.9 in 2010-11.

None of this is to suggest that Billingsley is clearly making a mistake here. It’s his health, his career, and his conversations with doctors — information we’re not privy to. It’s not out of the question that he can make this work, and the fact that he was able to hit 94 in November is a fantastic sign. It’s just difficult to look at the history of others have tried the same path and have a ton of optimism about it, and that’s why Ned Colletti is absolutely right to keep as much pitching depth as he can. Between Billingsley’s arm and the injury histories of Kershaw (hip), Beckett, Capuano, Lilly, & Harang, it sure seems like they’re going to need it.