Dodger Thoughts

Jon Weisman's outlet for dealing psychologically with the Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball and life

Chad Billingsley’s legacy a dividing line for Dodger fans

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For some, Chad Billingsley never stopped being the pitcher who imploded in the 2008 National League Championship Series, failing to make it out of the third inning in either of his two starts and condemned for supposed spinelessness along the way.

For me, Billingsley — one of the five best pitchers the Dodger system has produced in the past 25 years — remains a pitcher to admire, even accounting for his struggles.

The two sides of Billingsley illustrate a rift between fans that is even more pointed than the Old School-New School debate that for so long has dominated baseball conversation.

Simply put: Should a player be defined by his failures or his successes?

No one is immune from this treatment. The greatest players of their sports — Michael Jordan comes immediately to mind — would always be seen as somehow inferior until they were part of a title team, no matter how well they played. For a player who struggles in the championship spotlight, the treatment can be merciless, and entire narratives are written based on the performance in a few games or even a single outing. I’m sure there are still fans my age out there who think of Dave Winfield only as the guy who nearly went hitless in the 1981 World Series.

Some of the undeniable bitterness that fans felt following the Dodgers’ premature exit from this year’s playoffs derives from the fact that their best pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) and best hitter (Yasiel Puig) faltered at the most critical moments, and some will carry that resentment all the way into next year, perhaps beyond.

But with few exceptions, no recent Dodger captures this divide better than Billingsley, who became a free agent Friday after 11 1/2 years in the Dodger organization.

Before the 2008 NLCS, Billingsley was the best under-23 Dodger right-hander since Don Drysdale — in fact, the best in Los Angeles Dodger history by adjusted ERA. It’s been forgotten given what’s come since, but in Billingsley you had a pitcher who, in his first 400 innings, had a 3.33 ERA and 8.2 strikeouts per nine innings. How precocious was this? Orel Hershiser didn’t even start a game in the Majors until he was 25.

Billingsley then stepped into his first career playoff start, at Wrigley Field in the 2008 National League Division Series, and cruised for 6 2/3 innings, allowing a run on six baserunners while whiffing seven as the Dodgers took a 2-0 series lead back to Los Angeles.

Then came Philadelphia, and the double whammy of not brushing back the Phillies and not getting them out. Twice. And suddenly nothing he had done before mattered.

In his first 14 starts of 2009, Billingsley had a 2.72 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings, numbers that pushed him into the All-Star Game. The setbacks of the previous October, still fresh in everyone’s memory, had only seemed to make Billingsley stronger.


But subsequently, Billingsley’s development seemed to stall. He didn’t make a start in the 2009 playoffs. He never, to say the least, became Don Drysdale. He acquired a reputation as a pitcher who guaranteed to have a meltdown inning, whose every appearance supposedly signaled a white-knuckle ride.

It didn’t matter that in 2010, he had a 3.57 ERA and the No. 6 fielding-independent ERA in the NL — better than Kershaw. It didn’t matter that the meltdown reputation was overblown, something that happened only once every 20 innings. Billingsley was still that guy who collapsed in the NLCS. Everything else has seemed like epilogue to that October from six years ago.

The 2011 season was his most disappointing, raising concerns about his health. But in 2012, he was on one of his best rolls, posting a 1.30 ERA over six starts, when elbow problems derailed his season and possibly career. He was up and down, more than many fans could tolerate.

It’s not definite that Billingsley has played his last game as a Dodger, but if he has, he leaves with a 3.65 ERA, 110 ERA+ and 16.9 WAR in 1,175 1/3 innings, according to In 57 seasons of Los Angeles Dodger history, only 10 pitchers have a better adjusted ERA (minimum 1,000 innings), and only 14 accumulated more WAR.

In my view, in a big-picture view, that’s a success. Not the success of our wildest dreams, but a success nonetheless.


Chris Withrow’s rehab is for the faint of heart


Clayton Kershaw named Fangraphs player of the year


  1. charleyman48

    So sorry to see a once promising great pitcher the one two punch with Kershaw and him and not being a Dodger anymore. Not many can ever be compared to Drysdale like he was and I don’t see a prospect in our minor league system at this time. Wish we could sign him and see if he could rehab back but if not thanks to a real pro for being a great Dodger.

  2. leekfink

    The idea that Bills should be defined by his bad playoff starts against Philly, rather than a very good career, is about as silly as saying that Kershaw should be defined about his bad playoff starts against St. Louis (and really, one bad start, and a bad pitch to Matt Carpenter in 2014 in the course of a decent start in Game 1 of 2014, and one single lucky curve by Matt Adams in the course of an otherwise excellent start in Game 4), rather than what will shortly be 3 Cy Young Awards (and counting), and probably an MVP award.

    The good news is that Kershaw is in shape to disprove it once we win the pennant in 2015, led again by then-about-to-be-4-time-Cy-Young-winner Kershaw, whereas Bills health setbacks make his future effectiveness–and even his future career–questionable.

    But Bills showed all the tools and ability to be a top starter, and there is good reason to suspect that he will recover and be a high-quality pitcher again.

    Perhaps as a minor agreement with the nay-sayers, I would say that Bills never seemed to deal with the pressure as well. As a pitcher, that’s not really true, because he often/usually did well in big starts, and during times in 2006-07, when he was in the bullpen, he was being used in later-inning situations as part of the A staff. (I think, at the time, the team had enough starters, and were trying to not overly tax his arm, because there was not a lot of doubt about his stuff.) But in interviews he always seemed less with the bright lights of LA than did someone like Andre Ethier or Russell Martin (not to mention the media-saavy broadcaster-in-waiting AJ Ellis, the preternaturally focused Clayton Kershaw, or the gregarious and charismatic Matt Kemp). And it is possible that a level of personal discomfort in the spotlight of LA might have made pitching a bit harder, especially since during that 2007-2010 stretch, Billingsley was expected to be what Kershaw has become, and was viewed as the top pitcher (or at least top pitcher-in-waiting) on the high profile Dodgers. And while Kershaw has in fact become that, what he has become is the best pitcher of his generation and already a likely all-time great, so those are just ridiculous expectations to put on anyone.

    But I truly hope that the Dodgers re-sign him–perhaps to a minor league deal until he finishes his rehab, if only to preserve roster space. If he still has the tools (and there is good reason to hope), he could really thrive as a third or fourth starter amongst Kershaw/Greinke/Ryu/Haren. It is amongst a lot of smart/heady pitchers (which I think fits Billingsley), and he had all-star, even ace-level stuff–and might still be on another team, if his comeback is successful–but won’t have to deal with the expectations of being Drysdale to Kershaw’s Koufax (that role largely played by Greinke), and otherwise will not have the glare of the spotlight amongst a Dodger team that now has a lot more bright lights and personalities. The familiar environment and the other stars to take up the spotlight seem well-suited to him, and should make his recovery easier. He will get picked up somewhere, so I hope it is with the Dodgers.

  3. I was always a Bills fan. I wish him luck in his comeback endeavor. Maybe it will be in a Dodger uniform.
    Three cheers for the guy from Defiance, Ohio!

  4. He was always one of the good guys and deserved a better fate.

  5. oldbrooklynfan

    Nice write-up, Jon. I always dreamed of Billz in a starting World Series rotation for the Dodgers. I guess we’ll find out shortly, if that dream will ever come true..

  6. jpavko

    I still think Bills and Elbert should start

  7. I would like LA to bring him back THIS year give him another shot here, solid guy 20 wins over .500 less hits per innings, lifetime ERA 3.65 73.9 k per nine, I say one more shot!

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