The 1-2 pitch

Chad Billingsley gave up a single to the first batter he faced today, Arizona infielder Ryan Roberts. It came on a 1-2 pitch. You never want to see that happen, though it’s easily forgiven if it comes on your pitch. Billingsley, instead, left a fastball over the plate and chest-high. Roberts grounded it to the left of shortstop Dee Gordon into center field. With a little luck, Roberts would have hit it a few feet over, into Gordon’s range. But there was as much luck for Billingsley as there was execution.

“Normally,” said Dodger commentator Rick Monday, “in your last outing in Arizona for Spring Training, you would say, ‘Well, it’s just a final tuneup.’ I really believe that for Chad Billingsley, this is more than just a final tuneup, because he has not been fine-tuned so far. And since this is his last outing, I think it’s imperative to get some batters behind in the count, as he had right here the leadoff hitter Roberts, (and) finish them off.”

“Imperative” would be an exaggeration – nothing’s imperative until at least the regular season starts. But shy of that, Monday’s overall point wasn’t lost. You want to see it done right.

Billingsley did do some things right – after walking Justin Upton with one out, he struck out Jason Kubel to start an inning-ending double play that found Aaron Hill (who had hit into a 9-6 bloop forceout) caught stealing by A.J. Ellis. Billingsley then struck out his first batter of inning two, Chris Young. But mostly, it was a rough outing – insufficiently sharp. The 27-year-old righty gave up four runs and six hits on 70 pitches in three innings, including two arguably wind-aided home runs to left field. He finished his 2012 exhibition season with a 5.91 ERA.

Monday was fairly relentless in his criticism of Billingsley throughout the three innings, and again, I was of two minds. The critique seemed a bit over the top for a practice game, even with the regular season coming later this week. At the same time, unless Billingsley was deliberately trying to hide his good stuff from his division, it was a hard outing to watch, both from individual and team standpoints.

I’m still wondering if the poor performance by Billingsley in the second half of 2011, following a solid first two months, was injury-related. I might never get the answer. But one scenario that certainly is possible is that Billingsley’s 2012 effectively becomes a repeat of Jonathan Broxton’s 2011. Problems from the second half of the previous season are never really solved, and the ensuing campaign becomes a lost one.

Without minimizing what this might mean for Billingsley’s career, it points to the cliff’s edge the Dodgers will be driving along in 2012. They’re counting on improvement from players like Billingsley, Andre Ethier (having the best kind of Spring Training) and James Loney. If those players instead take additional steps back, you’re basically left with asking the farm system (Nathan Eovaldi, Jerry Sands, etc.) to come to the rescue. They might succeed, just as Javy Guerra did for Broxton in 2011, but it’s a risky business.

That Clayton Kershaw had an uneven performance 24 hours before Billingsley, allowing three runs on six hits and a walk in 3 2/3 innings, offers a half-empty, half-full counterpoint. From Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

… Kershaw said he was missing his spots and that his slider, which he had struggled with in his previous start six days earlier, still wasn’t quite right. But when asked if the slider was a concern now that the regular season is upon him, Kershaw said it isn’t.

“It can’t be,” he said. “April 5 is coming up pretty fast. You have to be ready to go.”

Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt says he continues to see good sliders from Kershaw intermittently, but that the inconsistency could be the result of Kershaw trying to force the pitch, especially in light desert air where breaking balls tend not to break as much and where simply getting a proper grip on the ball can be tough.

“But he isn’t going to make that excuse, and I’m not going to make it for him,” Honeycutt said. “As long as he is healthy, that is the main thing. [The slider] isn’t something I’m worried about. He is going to continue to work on it until he feels comfortable with it.” …

Whatever the results of March 2012, hoping that Matt Kemp, Kershaw, Billingsley, Ethier and Loney perform to their previous peaks isn’t exactly the longshot of picking a MegaMillions jackpot. It could happen, and if it does, I wouldn’t call it a fluke – just good timing. That, plus new ownership itching to make a first impression, plus my perhaps irrational belief that Gordon is going to excite all expectations (“I’m a Deeliever,” I’ve started singing to myself), plus an awareness that other teams in the NL aren’t blessed with unlimited good fortune, is why I enter this season with the hope that the Dodgers can win at least 90 games and a spot in postseason roulette.

But the lack of Plan Bs makes the Dodgers’ 2012 season a perilous one, with 90 losses anything but a remote possibility. If Billingsley struggles, if Ted Lilly can’t stay healthy, if Juan Uribe is toast, if Kemp and Kershaw take perfectly reasonable steps back from their insane greatness of last year, and so on into the night, the Dodgers quickly run out of escape routes.

At the end, it all comes back to the beginning. You’re on the mound. You have a 1-2 count on the batter. You have talent, experience and an edge.

Can you make your pitch?

Can your defense save you when you don’t?

Can your offense save you when your defense doesn’t?

Can your management save you when your offense and defense can’t?

  • http://twitter.com/nrmnbates Eric Enders

     What is everybody here expecting out of Kemp and Kershaw, by the way? Repeat? Perfectly reasonable step back? Collapse? Improvement?

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

       ”Perfectly reasonable step back” from me.

      • http://www.linkmeister.com/wordpress/ Linkmeister

        Unless Kemp really is the second coming of (insert name of all-time-great here), a slight step back wouldn’t be much of a surprise to me. Kershaw might be able to duplicate his performance. Great pitchers stay pretty great. If he is one, this year might be the one to show it.

    • Anonymous

      Collapse-No Way.
      Reasonable steps back althought Kershaw was pretty darn good even before last year and just didn’t get the “wins” although the lower BB rate could contribute. No reason to think he doesn’t actually improve.
      Kemp probably won’t improve, but I hope he does! Reasonable to expect a little drop-off from a near 1.000 OPS, hopefully it’s only down to .950 if it does go down!

    • Vail Beach

      Kemp: Repeat.
      Kershaw: Reasonable step back. 
      Ethier: Unreasonable step forward. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/michaelgreen327 Michael Green

    I didn’t watch, but I’m a bit surprised that Monday would have been that tough on Billingsley.  That said, I’M inclined to be tough on him, granting that I don’t attach much significance to spring training games, because Billingsley has been consistent on one score:  his inconsistency.  To put it another way, he seems to lose his way for one inning a game and KA-BOOM.  His stuff is too good to give up on but, for heaven’s sake, he has to USE that stuff.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Terry-Pruett/1707390003 Terry Pruett

      I don’t know that his “stuff is too good” anymore. He hasn’t missed a lot of bats in a while, and his velocity and strikeout rate are significantly down.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    That whole “one bad inning” description that has now been attached to Billingsley for a few years continues to bug me. Looking at his game logs, he occasionally has one bad inning surrounded by a bunch of zeroes, but no more so than the next pitcher.  More often, his bad games are not one-bad-inning affairs. Yet I’ve never seen any Dodger pitcher have this tag like Billingsley does.

  • Anonymous

    LAT’d: Lincecum’s spring ERA, including a minor league game, is 5.90 – exactly one one-hundredth better than Bills’s.

    • Anonymous

      I will take the wait and see on Billz. It is ST and even in the last game you’re still just working on your pitches, mechanics and location and not to mention you’re not bringing out your best stuff to AZ for sure.
      I think his past inconsistency, though, is the reason we’re even having this discussion. May this be the year he silences that!

  • Anonymous

    Would people like Billingsley more if he gave up one run per inning for four out of six innings?

    • http://twitter.com/nrmnbates Eric Enders

       You kid, but I bet the answer is “yes.”

  • http://twitter.com/nrmnbates Eric Enders

    “Se va, se va, se va…. cuadrangular!”

    Man, I love Jaime. Listening to the replay of him calling yesterday’s game.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Terry-Pruett/1707390003 Terry Pruett

    The hardest thing to do is to not look at Billingsley through “2008 Eyes”. The younger Billingsley had strikeout stuff, missed a lot of bats, and had plus velocity. That man has left the building. His stuff now can only be described as average, with below average command, in and out of the zone. He’s a number 4 or 5 starter now, on merit, and probably should have been traded for an every day bat last year. I doubt he could command much now.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/I6VPNDSS44KRBC2K4A5XMWANTI David

    The thing that drives me crazy with Billingsley is his inability to get batters to swing and miss. Sure, he’ll pick up a half dozen K’s a game once in awhile, but as far as I can remember, Bills never has had that put-away pitch with a 2 strike count. Point being: he rarely fools hitters. Foul ball after foul ball are hit against him, driving the pitch count way up (like today’s 70 pitches in 3 innings, for example). I’m sure somebody keeps stats of “foul balls,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if Billingsley is in the top 5 in the league. To me, all of this means that the more pitches each batter sees, the easier they will eventually be able to key in on him and finally make him pay in that proverbial “one big inning.”

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps Monday was tuning up for the regular season as well?  Though I can’t say I look forward to a year of him, and others, ranting about Bills, who is obviously not what he once was and needs to find a new way of getting it done.

    • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

      Normally I’d say yes, Monday is tuning up for the regular season, but he’s generally bad to, at best, mediocre so I’ll go with, “No, he’s always this bad. He’s in mid-season form.”

      • Anonymous

         By Collins, Lyons and Steiner makes him sound über-professional.

        • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

          Those guys are more clownish in that respect, than Monday, yes. He’s not really “better” though, and as a blog name once attested, still has trouble telling us what the score is.

      • Anonymous

        I saw only the highlight pitches on Gameday and they were as Monday called one of them-batting practice pitches.

  • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

    Some of the criticism and worries about Bills is warranted but I have to say a couple of things after watching him today (and there is no doubt he wasn’t as consistently sharp as you’d like him to be at this late hour before reg season starts):
    1) At least 1 of the 2 HRs would be not a HR in Dodger Stadium and probably an out, and there was a dropped fly ball by backup/scrubby Cruz that I think a Dodger regular gets to no problem (the ball hit 410 feet that Hairston couldn’t get was on Bills though); and 
    2) Monday, along with Lyons, have consistently been Billingsley’s harshest critics, to almost tiresome degree. he could pitch a 1 hitter and we’d hear about how he didn’t make pitches as consistently as he should.

    All that said, I share some frustrations with him and hope he does get sharper when the bell rings because you want to see better results at this point.  I do think the foul ball thing David brings up is something I’ve noticed as well. He has good stuff, but not often enough swing and miss stuff; the fouls end up adding to his pitch counts and then he starts to labor.  In short, he’s talented, and erratic, still, and I hope he picks it up. I’m certainly rooting for him.

    More than it seems Monday and Lyons are.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5PLVK7VEIPQAIVYZVS2J5NGUEA Joe Pierre

    Billingsley is a puzzlement, watch this, just as we get down on him he’ll ring up a few victories. Win 1 Lose 1 Lose 2 Win 2, He just can’t get on a roll and remains a .500 pitcher. Well, all we can do is hope.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    Trailer for HBO’s “The Newsroom” from Aaron Sorkin.
    http://bit.ly/HB11Du

    • Anonymous

      Interestingly, in the same year that HBO is starting their own show using the title of his most famous series, Ken Finkleman has a new news series starting in Canada, on April 9. It is called Good God, and is about the launch of a right-wing Canadian cable news channel similar to the US’s Fox News. Here is a clip from what I assume is the show’s first episode:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pWNdnTtfsQ

      • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

         Thanks, Canuck – I’ll make a short post about that at Variety.

  • Anonymous

    Nice article on Dee Gordon from CBS Sports:
    http://tinyurl.com/d68o65c

  • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

    Magic on Tavis tonight.
    Tavis Smiley ‏ @tavissmiley Attention all #Lakers and #Dodgers fans @MagicJohnson will be my guest tonight on @PBS Be sure to check your local listings.

  • Anonymous

    Joe Peta, a Wall Street analyst-turned baseball analyst, has pegged the Dodgers for 4th place in his preview of the 2012 season.  I’d say it’s pretty spot on for a guy who follows the entire league, and not just his home team.
    http://tradingbases.squarespace.com/

    • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

       ”For the second year in a row, Dodgers’ fans,
      not to mention the greatest announcer of all-time in any sport, Vin
      Sully, will be forced to watch a team squander the talents of Matt Kemp
      and Clayton Kershaw.”If there’s one name you want to spell right …

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/DFBO4SQIMZ4QFX7YVXLFEUIVZA Joseph

        He sullied himself with his error

    • Anonymous

      He picked San Diego to win the division with a 500 record, SF and Ariz tied at 1 game out, Dodgers 6 games out.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    Matt Cain signs an extension with the Giants through 2017 with 2018 option. 
     

    • Anonymous

      Heard Votto is close to extension too??? Hamels or Greinke anyone? 
      Would be ironic if Cain, Votto, and Hamels all signed this week–clearly fear of the new Dodgers owners!

    • http://underdog.typepad.com/ underdog

      @TrippingOlney:
      HEARD THIS: THE MATT CAIN CONTRACT INCLUDES A CLAUSE THAT PAYS FOR A SMALL BOX IN FRESNO FOR THE GIANTS TO KEEP BRANDON BELT IN.

  • Jack Dawkins

    Nice to see the community is already in mid season form about Bills.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    NPUT