Jun 23

Dodger Defcon ratings

Starting today, I’m making periodic contributions to the CityThink blog at Los Angeles Magazine. My first piece looks at the state of the Dodgers from a War Games perspective. Check it out …

Good teams have bad weeks, and one bad week like the Dodgers are having (with four losses in a row, including Friday’s 8-5 come-from-ahead defeat against the Angels) doesn’t ruin a season. At the same time, people have feared all along that the Dodgers are a team living on the brink of destruction in a dangerous baseball world.

In the spirit of War Games, here’s a snapshot of which Dodger problems are tic-tac-toe and which are global thermonuclear war …

Read the rest at CityThink …

May 20

Chad Billingsley and the truth about meltdown innings

Cardinals at Dodgers, 5:05 p.m.

Mark Ellis had emergency surgery Saturday, will be out at least six weeks.

Tony Gwynn Jr., CF
Elian Herrera, 2B
Bobby Abreu, LF
Andre Ethier, RF
Adam Kennedy, 3B
James Loney, 1B
A.J. Ellis, C
Justin Sellers, SS
Chad Billingsley, P

Chad Billingsley, who pitches tonight for the Dodgers against the Cardinals on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, has a reputation for being exceptionally prone to having a single inning where everything goes wrong and he can’t stop the bleeding, with questions about his mental focus and fortitude inevitably following.

For a while, I’ve wondered how much more often this actually happened to Billingsley than to other pitchers. I finally decided to take a look. (You can see the data at the bottom of this post.)

Since 2010, Billingsley has had what we’ll call a meltdown inning – three or more earned runs allowed – in 5.4 percent of his innings. That is the highest figure among the four starters most used by the Dodgers, topping Ted Lilly (4.4 percent), Hiroki Kuroda (4.0 percent) and Clayton Kershaw (3.2 percent).

How significant is this?

Every 10 starts, Billingsley has one more meltdown inning than the best pitcher in the National League does. The difference between Billingsley and Kershaw in this category is approximately two bad innings out of every 100. Given that these guys pitch roughly 200 innings a year, you’re talking about four additional bad innings per year – which goes a long way toward explaining the difference in their ERAs (2.49 for Kershaw, 3.88 for Billingsley) since 2010.

Billingsley is not as good a pitcher as Kershaw. That much is clear, and it’s reflected in the fact that Billingsley is a bit more vulnerable to a bad inning than Kershaw is. But this idea that Billingsley is uniquely prone to the meltdown inning – that it’s practically his calling card – is harder to sell.

Last year, for example, Billingsley and Kuroda each made 31 starts. They each had eight innings in which they allowed three runs. They each had two innings in which they allowed four runs. And yet even though a higher percentage of Kuroda’s 2012 runs allowed came in his meltdown innings, Kuroda did not leave the Dodgers with remotely the reputation for this sort of thing that Billingsley has. In fact, many argue that Kuroda’s mental game is a strength of his.

Since 2010, 80 of the 183 earned runs Billingsley has allowed have come in those 23 meltdown innings (43.7 percent). In that same span, 53 of the 138 earned runs Kershaw has allowed have come in his 16 meltdown innings (38.4 percent). Billingsley is worse than Kershaw, but Kershaw is nearly every bit as likely to give up the runs he does allow in bunches.

To the extent that Billingsley does give up the most meltdown innings of any regularly used Dodger starting pitcher, his reputation is deserved. But he doesn’t do it so often that he should wear it like an albatross, that it should become a “here we go again” moment each time it happens. Not when out of every hundred innings, Billingsley does it five times and Kershaw does it three.

Even the best Dodger pitchers give up runs in bunches. That’s just kind of how baseball works.

2012 (innings of three, four, five, six and seven earned runs allowed):

Pitcher Starts Innings ERA Three Four Five Six Seven Total Start% IP%
Billingsley 8 44.67 3.83 1 1       2 25.0% 4.5%
Capuano 8 50.00 2.34   1       1 12.5% 2.0%
Harang 8 49.33 3.83 2         2 25.0% 4.1%
Kershaw 9 61.67 1.90 2         2 22.2% 3.2%
Lilly 7 45.33 1.79 1         1 14.3% 2.2%
Total 40 251.00 2.69 6 2 0 0 0 8 20.0% 3.2%

2011:

Pitcher Starts Innings ERA Three Four Five Six Seven Total Start% IP%
Billingsley 32 188.00 4.21 5 4 2     11 34.4% 5.9%
De La Rosa 10 55.67 3.88 2   1     3 30.0% 5.4%
Ely 1 5.67 6.35           0 0.0% 0.0%
Eovaldi 6 32.00 3.09     1     1 16.7% 3.1%
Eveland 5 29.67 3.03 1 1       2 40.0% 6.7%
Garland 9 54.00 4.33 2     1   3 33.3% 5.6%
Kershaw 33 233.33 2.28 6 1       7 21.2% 3.0%
Kuroda 32 202.00 3.07 4 2       6 18.8% 3.0%
Lilly 33 192.67 3.97 6 3       9 27.3% 4.7%
Total 161 993.00 3.41 26 11 4 1 0 42 26.1% 4.2%

2010:

Pitcher Starts Innings ERA Three Four Five Six Seven Total Start% IP%
Billingsley 31 191.67 3.57 8 2       10 32.3% 5.2%
Ely 18 100.00 5.49 10 1       11 61.1% 11.0%
Haeger 6 23.00 9.78 2   1     3 50.0% 13.0%
Kershaw 32 204.33 2.91 6       1 7 21.9% 3.4%
Kuroda 31 196.33 3.39 8 2       10 32.3% 5.1%
Lilly 12 76.67 3.52 2 1 1     4 33.3% 5.2%
McDonald 1 5 7.20           0 0.0% 0.0%
Monasterios 13 53.33 5.91 3         3 23.1% 5.6%
Ortiz 2 7.33 9.82     1     1 50.0% 13.6%
Padilla 16 95.00 4.07 2 3       5 31.3% 5.3%
Total 162 952.67 3.99 41 9 3 0 1 54 33.3% 5.7%

2010-12:

2010-12 Starts Innings ERA Three Four Five Six Seven Total Start% IP%
Billingsley 71 424.33 3.88 14 7 2     23 32.4% 5.4%
Capuano 8 50.00 2.34   1       1 12.5% 2.0%
De La Rosa 10 55.67 3.88 2   1     3 30.0% 5.4%
Ely 19 105.67 5.54 10 1       11 57.9% 10.4%
Eovaldi 6 32.00 3.09     1     1 16.7% 3.1%
Eveland 5 29.67 3.03 1 1       2 40.0% 6.7%
Garland 9 54.00 4.33 2     1   3 33.3% 5.6%
Haeger 6 23.00 9.78 2   1     3 50.0% 13.0%
Harang 8 49.33 3.83 2         2 25.0% 4.1%
Kershaw 74 499.33 2.49 14 1     1 16 21.6% 3.2%
Kuroda 63 398.33 3.23 12 4       16 25.4% 4.0%
Lilly 52 314.67 3.55 9 4 1     14 26.9% 4.4%
McDonald 1 5 7.20           0 0.0% 0.0%
Monasterios 13 53.33 5.91 3         3 23.1% 5.6%
Ortiz 2 7.33 9.82     1     1 50.0% 13.6%
Padilla 16 95.00 4.07 2 3       5 31.3% 5.3%
Total 363 2196.67 3.58 73 22 7 1 1 104 28.7% 4.7%
Apr 11

Kershaw’s winless dominance

F-18s fly over Dodger Stadium prior to the home opener. © Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers 2012

Some Tuesday postgame data, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information:

How Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw dominated the Pirates despite not picking up a win:
- Sixty-five of Kershaw’s 88 pitches (73.9 percent) went for strikes, the highest percentage of his career.
- Kershaw went to a three-ball count to the first hitter of the game, the only one he went to all game. The one three-ball count matches his career low in a start.
- Pirates hitters were 0 for 7 with five strikeouts in at-bats ending with Kershaw’s slider.
- With two strikes, Pirates hitters were 0 for 11 with seven strikeouts.

Kershaw held the Pirates hitless in six at-bats with runners in scoring position on Tuesday, continuing his dominance of hitters when getting into a jam.

Lowest BA Allowed With RISP, Starting Pitchers, Since Start of 2011 Season

Ian Kennedy .142
Jeremy Hellickson .161
Ricky Romero .173
Jhoulys Chacin .173
Clayton Kershaw .185 (0-6 on Tuesday vs Pirates)

* * *

Matt Kemp went 0-4 on Tuesday, but drove in a run for the ninth straight game. The nine straight games with a RBI ties a Dodgers’ record.

Most Consecutive Games with RBI, Dodgers History
Matt Kemp 9 (2011-12)
Roy Campanella 9 (1955)
Augie Galan 9 (1944)

* * *
Andre Ethier, on his 30th birthday, hit a game-winning home run in the eighth inning in the Dodgers’ win over the Pirates. The last player to celebrate his 30th birthday by hitting a game-winning homer in the eighth inning or later was Jerry Mumphrey for the Yankees against Milwaukee on September 9, 1982. Mumphrey hit a 10th inning homer in that game. (Elias Sports Bureau)

* * *

  • In a story for Variety, I explore how much TV networks can justify bidding billions of dollars for the rights to broadcast baseball games. Nice to see Dee Gordon flying across the top of the paper …
  • In five games, Gordon has four steals in five tries, and replays showed he was safe on the time he was called out.
  • MIke Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness conveniently tackles a subject I was mulling myself: how Chad Billingsley does in his next start following a great outing. It might also be worth looking at how Billingsley does after a high pitch count in his most recent appearance.
  • Today in Jon SooHoo: A photo gallery from the home opener.
  • Sons of Steve Garvey has its own nice photo recap of Tuesday.
  • His Dodger shortstop predecessor, Rafael Furcal, is 10 for 23 with three doubles, two walks and two steals to start 2012: 1.045 OPS.
  • Here’s an Associated Press story on security at Dodger Stadium for the first home opener since Bryan Stow was attacked.
  • Joe Torre conceded to Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com that at times, Matt Kemp was a difficult player for him to manage.
  • Jonah Keri of Grantland and Dave Cameron of Fangraphs discuss the need and desire to kill the save statistic and replace it with something more useful.
  • Don Mattingly and Peter O'Malley. © Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers 2012

    Another gem by Josh Wilker at Cardboard Gods, inspired by the hyphen.
  • A baseball card featuring Reggie Smith and Ryne Sandberg is the subject of a piece by Bruce Markusen for the Hardball Times.
  • Dixie Walker will be played by Ryan Merriman of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars in the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, reports Justin Kroll of Variety.
  • Eleven contract extensions have been signed by pre-arbitration-eligible players since the end of last season; Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors looks at the trend.
  • Carlos Santana became one of those players, signing a five-year, $21 million extension. Mike Axisa of Fangraphs examines the deal.
  • At the bottom of this Fangraphs post, you are asked to rate Dodger radio announcers Charley Steiner and Rick Monday.
Apr 06

Billingsley hurls Dodgers to victory

Chad Billingsley gave the critics a rest in his first start of 2012, striking 11 in a dominant 8 1/3 innings while allowing only three hits and one walk in a 6-0 Dodger victory.

Billingsley was only in trouble in the second inning, when he gave up a leadoff double and a one-out walk. But Orlando Hudson grounded into a double play, the Dodgers boosted their lead to 4-0 in the third and Billingsley never looked back.

He struck out his first three batters, retired the side in order in six different innings and set down 16 batters in a row between Will Venable’s leadoff double in the fourth inning and Cameron Maybin’s one-out single in the ninth. That came on Billingsley’s 108th pitch, more than enough with the Dodgers up by half a dozen runs. Jamey Wright relieved Billingsley and used two ground balls to end the game.

Mark Ellis, Matt Kemp, Juan Rivera and Andre Ethier each had two hits, going 8 for 16 with a walk. Ellis had a double, while Ethier had a double and triple that each drove in two runs. Jerry Hairston Jr. also went 1 for 3 with a walk, starting in left field while Rivera played first base and James Loney sat against 27-year-old Padres lefty Cory Luebke, who allowed five earned runs and 10 baserunners (striking out six) in 4 2/3 innings of his first start since signing a four-year, $12 million contract extension in March.

Dee Gordon got his first hit of the season but was called out – incorrectly, according to replays – trying to steal. He is 1 for 10 so far in 2012. Juan Uribe went 0 for 4, while A.J. Ellis was 0 for 3 with a walk.

This was the fifth time Billingsley has struck out 11 in a game. He also has one game of 12 and two career-high games of 13. It was also the second time in less than a year he has thrown at least eight shutout innings against San Diego, including nine months ago in a 1-0 victory over the Padres. Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. notes that Billingsley achieved a career-high Game Score of 87.

* * *

Bill Shaikin of the Times notes the salient details available from the Dodger sale agreement filed in court today. The official price was $1.588 billion, with $412 million going to retire the Dodgers’ debt.

* * *

Haven’t really been publicizing these, but the fourth episode of Young Justice that I was the writer for is scheduled to air Saturday morning.

Apr 01

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?

Mar 28

Cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks


Bill Shaikin of the Times corraborates a Wall Street Journal report by Matthew Futterman. that the new Dodger ownership is paying all cash for the Dodgers, wiping out the team’s debt without using the TV money. Skeptics remain, however.

“The bid was described as a ’100% cash offer,’” Futterman wrote. “Mr. Walter is making a significant personal contribution to the purchase price, with Guggenheim Partners, of which he is chief executive, playing a substantial role in financial contribution.”

Adds Shaikin:

… the deal is all cash and no financing, so it wouldn’t add to the Dodgers’ already significant debt load. The purchase price for the team itself is $2 billion — roughly $1.6 billion in cash and $400 million in debt assumption. An additional $150 million is for a joint venture between the Johnson group and outgoing owner Frank McCourt to control the parking lots surrounding the stadium.

Under terms of the deal, no development would take place on the lots unless the Johnson group and McCourt agree. The deal also ensures that McCourt can retain partial ownership of the lots and share in any future development revenue.

The money fans pay to park at Dodgers games goes to the new ownership group. …

Whether there are some games being played to facilitate this all-cash payment, I don’t know.  Andrew Zimbalist is among the economists who are aghast at the sale price, according to this Arash Markazi piece at ESPNLosAngeles.com. Despite reports otherwise, they seem to believe that the Dodgers’ future TV money is being used to fund the deal.

The importance relates to what’s left over to invest in the team after the sale is done. Chad Moriyama reminds us that if the Guggenheim group has the cash to fund the Dodger purchase, we shouldn’t worry if they overpaid. Everything centers on that “if.”

At this point, I’m not sure any pundit really knows. And with this much money at play, I’m also not sure the Dodger operating budget — small by comparison — depends on how much cash was paid up front. Let’s put it this way: The Dodgers are certainly less likely to reject a star player than they were before Tuesday, let alone let someone like Hiroki Kuroda walk away for a million or so. I’m still much more worried about which star players the new management thinks are worthwhile to begin with.

Meanwhile …

  • Bill Plaschke of the Times has a news interview with Johnson, Kasten and Walter. It’s worth the click. ESPNLosAngeles.com and Ken Gurnick of MLB.com had similar conversations.
  • Matt Kemp and Dee Gordon think they could beat Magic Johnson in one-on-one basketball today, according to Dylan Hernandez of the Times. I’m not so sure … and Tony Gwynn Jr. agrees with me.
  • Former Dodger owner Peter O’Malley told Shaikin that he believes in Johnson and Kasten.
  • Joe Flint of the Times says that your cable TV bill (if you have one) will help fund the Dodgers’ acquisition.
  • Ross Newhan wonders if the sale of the team was destined for Magic all along.
  • Phil Gurnee writes at True Blue L.A. about how amazing it is for us Dodger fans who grew up adoring Johnson to see him in this position.
  • Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness shares his thoughts.
  • J.P. Breen of Fangraphs looks at possible future free-agent targets for the Dodgers.
  • If you want to go back and read my Variety story on Johnson’s plans to launch family-friendly cable channel Aspire, here it is.
  • Let’s hear it for 44-year-olds! Omar Vizquel will be on the Opening Day roster of the Blue Jays, according to The Associated Press.
  • The turnover of former Dodgers continues, with Chin-Lung Hu and Joe Thurston headed to the Phillies, as noted by MLB Trade Rumors.
  • Katie Sharp of ESPN.com examines whether Chad Billingsley’s problems last year related to his slider.
  • Oh yeah – the Dodgers played today.
Feb 26

Tinker tailor pitcher spy

I had hoped to do a big pre-Spring Training piece on Chad Billingsley, but that got lost in the ongoing shuffle of my life. But Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has a good lidlifter on Billingsley, whose mechanics continue to be a work in progress.

… After throwing his second bullpen session of spring training last week, Billingsley spent several minutes talking with Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who at one point could be observed manually adjusting Billingsley’s front foot in midair while Billingsley stood frozen at the apex of his delivery.

This is what spring training is for, obviously, to iron out little things. But this is a fairly big change for Billingsley, who is trying to stop kicking his front leg out during his delivery — which often results in his body getting ahead of his arm and sometimes allows gravity and momentum to affect his motion — and start keeping that leg underneath his body.

“I don’t know if it’s major,” Billingsley said. “I’m just working hard at smoothing out my leg kick. When my foot gets out away from my body like that, my timing has to be just right. If it’s not, then I start drifting toward the third-base side and stepping across my body when I deliver the pitch.”

And that results in the pitch being off line, maybe no more than an inch or so — but in the big leagues, that can be the difference in a game. Billingsley is hoping this adjustment will allow him to stay on line more often, giving him a little more margin for error with the rest of his delivery because his timing will be right and his momentum won’t cause him to fall off to one side of the mound.

“You can’t be perfect all the time, even though that is what you strive for,” Billingsley said. “There are going to be times when I’m still going to be too quick (with his body). But this should allow me to be more consistent.”  …

  • One of the more positive assessments of the 2012 Dodgers you’ll see comes from Ben Reiter of SI.com.
  • Steve Soboroff regrets getting on Team McCourt last year, he tells T.J. Simers of the Times, and advises McCourt to sell the Dodger Stadium parking lots with the team.
  • Not surprisingly, the Dodger Sims lineup simulator and Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness find it best – for the Dodgers to bat A.J. Ellis leadoff and Dee Gordon eighth – but not so much better that we need to stew over it. (My post about the Dodger batting order came last week.)
  • The Dodgers’ annual open tryout at Camelback Ranch is March 1. Potential prospects can call (323) 224-1512 for details and instructions.
  • Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A. ran down a typical day at Spring Training the other day.
  • Stephen also passes along Don Mattingly’s initial thoughts from Camelback about Dee Gordon: “It’s a time issue with Dee. I don’t think we can say, ‘We want you to walk.’ I think we want to let him hit, let him be himself, and let him progress into the role.”
  • Jacob Peterson of Beyond the Box Score has an interesting post about extremes involving the ages of baseball Hall of Famers.
  • The departure of Tony LaRussa as Cardinals manager is the only thing that paved the way for Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith to rekindle his relationship with the team, writes Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
  • Sportsthodoxy offers “Your Handy Ryan Braun Conspiracy Theory Guide” (via Rob McMillin at 6-4-2).
  • If you know in advance that you’re going to limit an ace pitcher to 160 innings in a season, as the Nationals plan to with Stephen Strasburg, how would you do it? David Pinto of Baseball Musings and Tom Tango (in a blog post and the comments below) contemplate the question.
  • An excellent story of how sabermetrics – not to mention FireJoeMorgan.com turned around the career of A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy is told by Eddie Matz of ESPN the Magazine.
Dec 26

Remembering 2011: Chad Billingsley


Alex Gallardo/APChad Billingsley (48)

Presenting the final entry in the Remembering 2011 series …

The setup: Billingsley rebounded from his struggles in the second half of 2009 to post a 3.57 ERA and 109 ERA+ in 2010, with 171 strikeouts in 191 2/3 innings. In his final 14 starts of 2010, he had a 2.45 ERA with 82 strikeouts in 92 innings, averaging 6 2/3 innings per start.

Two days before the season opener, Billingsley, who was paid $6.275 million in 2011, signed a contract extension guaranteeing him $32 million from 2012-14 plus a club option for 2015 ($14 million in salary or a $3 million buyout). A few months shy of turning 27, the expectations for Billingsley were the highest they had been since the first half of 2009, when he had a 3.38 ERA and 119 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings and made the National League All-Star team.

The closeup: After an up-and-down April highlighted by eight innings of shutout ball against St. Louis with 11 strikeouts, Billingsley was encouragingly strong in May. In six starts that month, he had a 2.63 ERA while striking out 41 in 41 innings against 52 baserunners. That included eight innings of one-hit ball against Arizona in a May 14 game that Billingsley lost on an unearned run. The righthander went into June with a 3.46 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings.

He was complimenting that performance with a potential Silver Slugger season at the plate. After netting a home run, walk and double June 5 in Cincinnati, Billingsley had a .385 on-base percentage and .565 slugging percentage for a .950 OPS. He ended up going 2 for 33 for the remainder of the season – yet that, really, was the least of his problems.

In his first three June starts, Billingsley pitched 13 2/3 innings and allowed 43 baserunners and an 11.19 ERA. As in May, he rebounded with what might have been his best four-start stretch of the year: 27 1/3 innings, 29 baserunners and a 1.32 ERA in his final appearances before the All-Star break. But even here, Billingsley’s strikeouts (6.6 per nine innings) were off, and so while he had lowered his ERA back down to 3.87, there was still reason for concern.

During the season’s second half, Billingsley had four quality starts in 13 outings. It’s indicative of his struggles that in his best post-break performance, July 24 against Washington, he still needed 31 pitches to get out of the first inning before finishing with seven innings of two-hit, 10-strikeout ball. In 11 starts after that one, Billingsley had more than five strikeouts only once.

By the end of August, though he was still maintaining an ERA in the low 4s, it was hard not to worry about him.

… His strikeout rate has dipped for the fourth consecutive season, from 9.01 in 2008 to 8.21 in 2009, 8.03 last year and 7.46 this season – a figure that is neither bad nor great, but the trend is kind of discouraging. In the past year, his walk rate has gone up from 3.24 to 3.84, virtually as much as his strikeout rate has gone down.

What does it all mean?

In direct contrast to his reputation, Billingsley has repeatedly shown the ability to come back from adversity. From the 2008 postseason, from his broken fibula, from his 2009 slump, Billingsley has always found a way. But this, quietly, might be his biggest challenge of all. It might require nothing more than a tweak, or it might require something much more substantial. Can he do what Kemp did?

In the history of the Dodgers, only eight pitchers have had more strikeouts before turning 28 than Billingsley, and three of them are in the Hall of Fame. Only 13 pitchers have had a better park- and era-adjusted ERA before turning 28 than Billingsley. He is, objectively, one of the best young pitchers in more than 100 years of Dodger baseball.

Another one of those is Billingsley’s teammate Clayton Kershaw, who poses a standard that Billingsley probably won’t be able to live up to. But Billingsley’s inability to match Kershaw isn’t what will make or break him. He doesn’t have to be Kershaw-good to be good.

The question is not whether Billingsley has been a good pitcher for the Dodgers up to now. The question is whether he is slipping just as he’s entering what should be his prime…

September hardly offered a positive answer for Billingsley, to the extent that we were left with the following:

  • September 2009: 5.16 ERA, 29 2/3 innings, 1.483 WHIP, 8.8 K/9
  • September 2011: 5.16 ERA, 22 2/3 innings, 1.765 WHIP, 6.0 K/9

Yep, as down as many people were on Billingsley by the end of 2009, there was even more reason to be in 2011. Finishing the year one win shy of his third consecutive 12-11 season, Billingsley had the worst ERA (4.21) and ERA+ (88) of his career, and his worst WHIP, walk and strikeout numbers since he was 22.

Coming attractions: It’s my belief that Billingsley’s problems were mainly physical last year. Whether they’re the kind that are cured by an offseason of rest, or whether this is the setup for a 2012 like Jonathan Broxton had in 2011, I don’t know. But I don’t think that this is a coincidence:

  • 8.5 K/9 in April-May
  • 7.2 K/9 in June-July
  • 5.7 K/9 in August-September

As with Andre Ethier, a comeback season from this former All-Star could make a big difference in 2012 for the Dodgers, who can’t afford another year of two stars and 23 whatevers.

Sep 08

Billingsley’s tailspin: approach or injury?

Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesChad Billingsley’s ERA rose to 4.30 today.

So, which logic do we follow?

Is it the logic that Chad Billingsley is afraid to trust his stuff? That his mechanics have gone awry?  Or that might be hurt?

Billingsley was chased with one out in the third inning of today’s lidlifter against Washington, after he gave up the Dodgers’ early 4-0 lead. Billingsley surrendered four runs on a single, three doubles and a home run in the third, capping an ugly outing in which he allowed eight of his 15 batters to reach base.

Despite concern rising about his performance on this site two weeks ago, Billingsley actually had a halfway decent August, with a 3.77 ERA while averaging more than six innings per start. But his strikeouts per nine innings fell to 5.5 while his walks were at 4.1.

In September, it’s just gone off a cliff. Billingsley has made two starts and lasted a combined 6 1/3 innings, allowing seven earned runs on 14 hits while walking six and striking out five.

It may well be that this is a problem of execution (and no, I don’t mean the old John McKay joke). But given the history of the Dodgers and their players (punctuated this year by Jonathan Broxton and Andre Ethier) trying to slide by with injuries rather than address them, Billingsley’s health is the first question that comes to my mind.

If he’s healthy, then this is the perfect time of the year to work out his issues. But if he’s hurt, gutting it out only serves to hurt Billingsley and the franchise.

Aug 25

The ups and downs of Chad Billingsley


Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesChad Billingsley has been unable to keep his ERA below 4.00 this season.

In an early scene of the underappreciated classic “Joe vs. the Volcano,” Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya) is on the phone repeating to an unseen caller, “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?”

The different answers to that question, when it’s asked of Dodger starting pitcher Chad Billingsley, are helping rebuild his case as the Dodgers’ MPP: Most Polarizing Player.

One thing to realize is that Billingsley, while not a staff leader, remains 25th in the National League in Wins Above Replacement as well as Fielding Independent ERA in 2011, according to Fangraphs. To be the 25th-best pitcher in a 16-team league, simple math tells us, is to fit right in as a solid No. 2 starter relative to the rest of the NL.

Let that sit with you for a moment. Whatever you might think of Billingsley, most NL pitchers are worse. And that’s in what anyone would stipulate is a down year for Billingsley.

Just the same, it would be impossible not to acknowledge a widespread level of disappointment with the 27-year-old righty – not to mention a significant number of people who can’t stand it when he takes the mound.

The roots of this are deep, and date back to nearly three years ago, when Billingsley briefly stole MPP honors from such title-holders as Juan Pierre, Manny Ramirez, Jonathan Broxton and Matt Kemp.

Billingsley entered the 2009 season with a career ERA of 3.39 and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings, coming off an age-24 season in which his 3.14 ERA was seventh in the NL (and his FIP was fifth). We’re talking about an elite pitcher at age 24.

Billingsley then threw 6 2/3 innings of seven-strikeout, one-run ball in the Dodgers’ sweep of the Cubs in the NL Division Series, probably the most forgotten 6 2/3 innings of Billingsley’s career.

That’s because, at a moment where Billingsley was everything you could ask for – at a time when the Dodgers had suddenly become favorites to reach the World Series, and he was one of the main reasons –  he fell apart in the NLCS. In two starts, he lasted a combined five innings and allowed 10 earned runs in taking two of the Dodgers’ four losses to the Phillies. And of course, it was the nature of the meltdown – when he was accused of not having the backbone, guts or other body parts to stand up for his teammates and brush back Phillies hitters in Game 2 – that torched his reputation.

Thanks to those two games, roughly half of the Dodger fanbase threw everything that Billingsley had accomplished in the first three seasons of his career  out the window to serve the story that he was a loser. Everything he has done in the three seasons since has been refracted through that prism.

For example, how many people remember that Billingsley came right back in 2009 and – despite breaking his leg in an offseason accident – pitched exceptionally enough to make the All-Star team, with a 3.14 ERA and 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings in the first half? And how many people remember the second half, when the first prolonged slump of his career eventually knocked him out of the postseason starting rotation? There’s your divide, and it’s stark.

The funny thing is that in August and September of that 2009 slump, Billingsley’s ERA was 4.21 – hardly Haegeresque. But no doubt many people remember his entire second half of that season as a complete collapse, and probably think he was blasted by the sixth inning of every start he made in that time. In fact, there are still people who probably think Billingsley fades in the second half every season, ignoring 2008 (2.99 ERA) and 2010 (3.00 ERA).

It was a shame that Billingsley knocked himself out of the opportunity to redeem himself in the 2009 postseason. Still, he continued rebuilding his credentials in 2010, with a 3.57 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 191 2/3 innings, enough for the Dodgers to commit $35 million to him for the next three seasons, 2012-14.

But Billingsley has been inconsistent again in 2011. In May, he had a 2.63 ERA with 41 strikeouts in 41 innings, lowering his season ERA to 3.46 at the end of the month. Since then, it’s been a mixed bag, with his ERA rising to 4.07, which would be the highest of his career if it stays there.

If Kemp were having the kind of season that Billingsley is having … well, Kemp did have that season. He had it in 2010, when everyone questioned his effort and not a few people wanted to give up on him.

Billingsley, on the other hand, does not seem to have his effort questioned, but even this year, his mental approach to the game has been challenged.

“I know he can get the job, but can he do the job.”

Billingsley’s problems might be less mysterious than all that, however. His strikeout rate has dipped for the fourth consecutive season, from 9.01 in 2008 to 8.21 in 2009, 8.03 last year and 7.46 this season – a figure that is neither bad nor great, but the trend is kind of discouraging. In the past year, his walk rate has gone up from 3.24 to 3.84, virtually as much as his strikeout rate has gone down.

What does it all mean?

In direct contrast to his reputation, Billingsley has repeatedly shown the ability to come back from adversity. From the 2008 postseason, from his broken foot, from his 2009 slump, Billingsley has always found a way. But this, quietly, might be his biggest challenge of all. It might require nothing more than a tweak, or it might require something much more substantial. Can he do what Kemp did?

In the history of the Dodgers, only eight pitchers have had more strikeouts before turning 28 than Billingsley, and three of them are in the Hall of Fame. Only 13 pitchers have had a better park- and era-adjusted ERA before turning 28 than Billingsley. He is, objectively, one of the best young pitchers in more than 100 years of Dodger baseball.

Another one of those is Billingsley’s teammate Clayton Kershaw, who poses a standard that Billingsley probably won’t be able to live up to. But Billingsley’s inability to match Kershaw isn’t what will make or break him. He doesn’t have to be Kershaw-good to be good.

The question is not whether Billingsley has been a good pitcher for the Dodgers up to now. The question is whether he is slipping just as he’s entering what should be his prime. There’s every chance that he’ll bounce back to be as good as he ever was. But in the process of figuring that out, the MPP trophy seems headed his way.

Jul 24

Billingsley rallies himself, Dodgers rally to victory

Chad Billingsley needed 31 pitches to get his first out today, but only 84 pitches to get the next 20 outs. His own personal rally cap led to a seven-inning, 10-strikeout, two-hit performance in the Dodgers’ 3-1 victory over Washington today. Tony Jackson has more at ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Billingsley had a day to remember, while Albuquerque’s Tim Sexton had a night to forget. Forced to take one for the team because of a pitching shortage, Sexton was charged with 16 runs in five innings of a 17-9 Isotopes loss to New Orleans.

We’ll wrap up this quick post with this video, provided by Roberto Baly of Vin Scully Is My Homeboy. Dancing Vinny?

Jul 08

Save la Guerra: Dodgers escape with 1-0 victory


Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireCelebrating survival.

The last Dodger save was June 19, when Javy Guerra pitched a final shutout inning after the Dodgers scored the game’s only run in the bottom of the eighth.

That was a romp in the park compared to what happened tonight.

Guerra again pitched a final shutout inning after the Dodgers scored the game’s only run in the bottom of the eighth, but not until after he allowed a leadoff double and hit two consecutive batters – one bunting – to load the bases with none out.

As panic, bitterness and despair reigned and rained, Guerra pulled himself together and struck out the next two batters, before Matt Kemp chased down a sinking liner by Jason Bartlett to preserve the Dodgers’ 1-0 victory.

Rafael Furcal’s RBI single drove in the go-ahead run (after A.J. Ellis and Tony Gwynn Jr. each reached base for the second time in the game), boosting Chad Billingsley to victory in his second consecutive eight-inning performance and the Dodgers’ second shutout in two nights. Billingsley lowered his ERA in his past four starts to 1.32.

Jun 16

Dodger Stadium, 2061

Jon WeismanCh-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.

At the Los Angeles Magazine 50th anniversary party Wednesday (deftly chronicled by Michael Schneider at Franklin Avenue), they had a series of covers imagining the magazine in 2061. A sample of one can be seen to the right. It appears that Dodger Stadium will have come full circle by then.

Elsewhere … Eno Sarris of Fangraphs takes a stab at what’s wrong with Chad Billingsley.

For what it’s worth, Billingsley, who has a .379 on-base percentage and .538 slugging percentage in 33 plate appearances, is now the No. 1 hitting pitcher in major-league baseball. Clayton Kershaw is also in the top 10.

Jun 15

Slumping Billingsley adds to Dodger woes


Mark J. Terrill/APChad Billingsley allowed seven runs on nine hits and four walks in four innings today.

Chad Billingsley through the end of May: 75 1/3 innings, 71 strikeouts, 100 baserunners, 3.46 ERA.

Chad Billingsley in June, including today’s game: 13 2/3 innings, nine strikeouts, 43 baserunners, 11.19 ERA.

Update: Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has more on Billingsley, who is frustrating Don Mattingly, in part because Billingsley was even or ahead in counts when he gave up all nine of his hits allowed today.

… “Honestly, it’s still the same stuff,” Mattingly said. “You still see the ball coming out the same way. But you can’t just throw the ball by people, because if you’re going to catch too much of the plate, you’re going to get hit. It’s as simple as that. (The Reds) are too good a team, and really, everybody you face, you have to throw the ball where you want it. If you can’t (do that), you’re going to be in trouble.”

Billingsley was at a loss to explain the way he has pitched of late.

“I definitely didn’t get the job done,” he said. “I was throwing strikes and getting ahead of hitters, but I couldn’t put them away. I’m just not executing pitches in certain situations. It just wasn’t very good today. I just have to come back out and get better, just keep working hard and figure it out.”

Billingsley said there really was no difference in this start and his previous two, one of which he won despite giving up four runs on eight hits over five innings against the Reds in Cincinnati on June 5.

“It’s the same problem,”‘ he said.

Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas said that besides not being able to spot his fastball, Billingsley (5-6) also didn’t have the usual sharpness to his curveball against the Reds, something that only exacerbated his struggle.

“He is one of our horses,” Barajas said. “When he goes out there, we expect him to go seven and give us a chance to win. The last few times out, it just hasn’t been there. It’s frustrating, not only for him but for everybody in this clubhouse. It’s just a matter of getting behind him and encouraging him to get back to where he needs to be.”

Jun 05

Sluggin’ Billingsley powers Dodgers, 9-6


David Kohl/APAaron Miles congratulates Chad Billingsley on hitting his second home run since Miles last hit one.

Chad Billingsley couldn’t bring it today on the mound, but he sure brought it at the plate.

Billingsley somehow managed to overshadow Matt Kemp’s third home run in two days by going deep himself in the second inning, walking with the bases loaded in the third and doubling in a run in the fifth inning, helping the Dodgers to a 9-6 victory.

Billingsley, who entered the game OPS-ing a career-high .638 (5 for 21 with two doubles), surged to .950, which is second in the major leagues among pitchers to J.A. Happ’s .959. (Today’s double wasn’t cheap, either – it landed on the warning track and one-hopped against the wall.) His efforts, combined with Kemp’s prodigious two-run home run in the first inning and a total of 13 hits and 10 walks from the Dodger offense, boosted the Dodgers to 20 runs over the past two days, 17 of them coming in a eight-inning span.

Kemp was 2 for 3 with three walks, Andre Ethier 2 for 4 with a walk, Jamey Carroll 1 for 4 with two walks, James Loney (batting eighth) 1 for 2 with three walks, Aaron Miles 2 for 6. Rod Barajas added a significant two-run double. Ethier and Kemp (who reached base five times for the third time in his career) each lifted their 2011 on-base percentages back over .400.

Sobering for the Dodgers was this: This wasn’t the first time Billingsley homered and doubled in the same game, and things went more than a little rough when it happened before. On July 5, 2009, Billingsley did the same in San Diego while holding the Padres to one run over the first eight innings, only to have the Dodgers blow a 6-1 in the ninth inning in a game that, following the 2008 playoffs, helped make Jonathan Broxton very unpopular among many Dodger fans. (The Dodgers ultimately won, 7-6.)

So what would happen today? Los Angeles ultimately removed Billingsley after five innings, four runs, 12 baserunners and 106 pitches. John Ely, called up to support the injury-depleted pitching staff, had an opportunity for a four-inning save. He started a little shaky, giving up four baserunners and a run in his first two innings, but had a nice eighth inning in which he retired Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce in order. It was the first time in the game either team had a 1-2-3 inning.

Ely came out for the ninth, but lost his save opportunity when he walked Ryan Hanigan and Don Mattingly replaced him with Josh Lindblom, who started out by walking Miguel “33 homers in 1,359 games” Cairo and, looking really wild, hitting Ramon Hernandez in the shoulder to load the bases. Tying run up at the plate, nobody out.

As Ramon Troncoso began warming up in the bullpen, Paul Janish, who was 3 for 3 at that point, fouled out to Barajas. Pinch-hitter Chris Heisey flied deep to right for a “we’ll take it” sacrifice fly.

Facing Drew Stubbs, who had a chance to follow his leadoff homer in the first inning with a game-tying homer in the ninth, Lindblom fell behind in the count, 2-1. But then it all came together for Lindblom. The next two pitches were nasty fastballs at the knees, and Stubbs whiffed at both … and the Dodgers had held on.

Weird note: The Dodgers average 3.7 runs per game, but haven’t finished a game with exactly four runs since May 13.