Apr 10

As Billingsley returns, do armchair therapists lurk?

Eleven men, brave and true, have pitched for the Dodgers in this young season. None, with the possible exception of Zack Greinke (who has publicly acknowledged social anxiety and depression issues), have had their performances psychoanalyzed in terms of mental toughness.

But back to the couch tonight, for the first time since his 2012 midseason injury, comes Chad Billingsley. It will be a test — not just for Billingsley, but for Dodger fans, who have habitually graded the righthander’s mental toughness ever since the 2008 playoffs.

Dodgers at Padres, 7:10 p.m.

Carl Crawford, LF
Mark Ellis, 2B
Matt Kemp, CF
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
Andre Ethier, RF
Luis Cruz, 3B
A.J. Ellis, C
Justin Sellers, SS
Chad Billingsley, P

The practice went on hiatus during the six-game, 1.30 ERA hot streak that came right before Billingsley was sidelined. Will it return as soon as he has his first bad inning, or will there be the kind of grace period that other pitchers get when they are coming back from an injury? I have my suspicions, but it would be nice if Dodger fans could be as clear-headed as they expect their pitcher to be.

The thing to remember is, Billingsley was having an odd 2012 even before its supernova finish. From July 28:

Continue reading

Mar 28

Praising Burt Hooton

… (Chan Ho) Park made one more appearance before the Dodgers shipped him to Double-A San Antonio. There he met Burt Hooton, a pitching instructor and former Dodgers starter.

“Burt Hooton was my best friend my first two years,” said Park, who spent most of the 1995 season at Triple-A Albuquerque before breaking through with the Dodgers in ’96. “He was like an uncle to me. He cared about me, my emotions, while he was helping me learn techniques.

“One thing I told Ryu was that meeting good people is very important. I told him to try to make his pitching coach his best friend. When I got my first Major League win, I called Burt Hooton before I even called my parents. That’s how important he was to me.” …

— Ken Gurnick, MLB.com

When I ranked the top 50 Dodgers of all time a year ago for ESPNLosAngeles, Burt Hooton was 29th. But generally, you don’t hear much about him when the pantheon of great Dodgers is discussed.  Nice to see his name brought back to life, particularly in this extra, nurturing dimension.

Hooton gave the Dodgers 10 years of a 3.14 ERA and though he’s often thought of as a postseason goat thanks to one outing in Philadelphia, recovered to have a 2.79 ERA in his 10 other Dodger playoff games, including a remarkable 0.82 ERA over five 1981 postseason starts. (He was the Most Valuable Player of the 1981 National League Championship Series, pitching 14 2/3 shutout innings.) That’s some big stuff that no one ever talks about.

He managed to do this despite averaging five strikeouts per nine innings, a rate that would almost assuredly signify failure in this era. Opponents had a .659 OPS against Hooton over his 15-year career. Since 1972, Hooton has the eighth-best opponent OPS+ among all Dodger pitchers (minimum 600 innings).

Footnote: Hooton is a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame and was named the No. 4 college baseball player of the 20th century by Baseball America. Here is his induction speech …

Mar 27

Dodger pitching: Safety in numbers

‘Twas interesting, in the space of 24 hours, for relief pitcher Mark Lowe to go from Dodger camp to pitching against the Dodgers in the Freeway Series.

That the Dodgers would cut loose the 29-year-old Lowe, who was nothing extraordinary but fits the profile of the Jamey Wright types that annually make the Opening Day roster, was the latest indication of how overflowing the Dodger pitching staff is, five days shy of the 2013 season.

That depth is a key weapon for the team this season, because there is so much uncertainty over how healthy and effective so many of the pitchers will be, whether it’s concerns over Zach Greinke’s elbow, Chad Billingsley’s health and consistency or the legitimacy of Brandon League’s late-2012 revamp.

While roster decisions in general should be made based on talent and capability, I won’t mind if the Dodgers stash such relievers as Paco Rodriguez or Josh Wall in the minors (as they have with Javy Guerra and Shawn Tolleson) in order to test the 2013 mettle of those without minor-league options.

The last thing the Dodgers should do is rush into a low-value trade of one of their excess starting pitchers – Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang or Ted Lilly – just so they can make room for a Wall or Kevin Gregg in the back of their bullpen. If they can make a good deal, super – Los Angeles certainly has weak spots among the position players to address, namely in the infield and on that shaky bench. But the end of March is not time to give away starting pitchers for nothing, especially when the existing Dodger starting rotation has its own set of interrogative punctuation (or as they are popularly known, question marks).

It might mean you don’t have the most exquisite 25-man roster for Opening Day. You need to think about the long haul, and the 2013 season, like every other, will absolutely be a long haul.

Aug 30

Dodger pitching staff battles attrition

Ted Lilly can’t take a step forward without a step back. Scott Elbert is on the disabled list. Chad Billingsley might be out for the season. And now Kenley Jansen’s irregular heartbeat needs attention that could keep him sidelined.

The continued loss of those pitchers would leave the Dodgers with the arms in the chart below for the challenging final 31 games, unless they dip deeper into the minors for someone who hasn’t pitched in Los Angeles this year, or step outside the organization once again.

Jun 20

R.A. Dickey and Colorado: Climbing the mountain, falling off a cliff

All this and Mt. Kilimanjaro too? Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is everything Dodger fans wanted Charlie Haeger to be and more.

You might have thought climbing the big mountain or publishing a book might be Dickey’s biggest accomplishments of the year, but perhaps not.

Dickey, as David Schoenfield of ESPN.com notes, has not only thrown consecutive one-hitters, but in his past six starts, “Dickey is 6-0 with a 0.18 ERA (one earned run in 48 2/3 innings), 63 strikeouts, five walks and a .131 average allowed.”

Venerable New Yorker writer Roger Angell offered this:

… Dickey, whose full beard and peaceable appearance suggest a retired up-country hunting dog, is thirty-seven years old, with ten years and three prior big-league teams behind him, and hard work has brought him to this Shangri-La, perhaps only briefly. He’ll hope for another visit on Sunday, against the Yankees. Watching him, if you’ve ever played ball, you may find yourself remembering the exact moment in your early teens when you were first able to see a fraction of movement in a ball you’d flung, and sensed a magical kinship with the ball and what you’d just done together. This is where Dickey is right now, and for him the horrendous din of the game and its perpetual, distracting flow of replay and statistics and expertise and P.R. and money and expectation and fatigue have perhaps dimmed, leaving him still in touch with the elegant and, for now, perfectly recallable and repeatable movements of his body and shoulders and the feel of the thing on his fingertips.

* * *

Pitching is easy to predict – and hard too!

“Colorado’s rotation has undergone the most turnover and is the hardest to peg in the division, though you could say it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,” I wrote in March for ESPNLosAngeles.com. “A look at Colorado makes one appreciate the apparent stability of the Dodgers’ starting rotation.”

Basically, while there were several grim preseason forecasts about how the Dodgers would do this season, the one thing I was most sure of was that they wouldn’t finish behind the Rockies, whose pitching seemed to be in disarray.

Vindication of that position has come throughout 2012, with the Rockies’ starting pitchers combining for an ERA of more than 6.00. That has brought one Jim Tracy to the brink of … something: a four-man starting rotation with pitch-count limits of 75 per game.

Here’s Rob Neyer’s take at Baseball Nation:

… Tracy’s just guessing, of course. And there’s another, perhaps larger issue. If Tracy sticks to that 75-pitch limit, he’ll routinely be turning to his bullpen in the fifth and sixth innings. Now, if managers are crying for relief help with starting pitchers on 100-pitch limits — as they do, routinely — what’s going to happen with 75-pitch limits?

Theoretically, it could work. Tracy’s starters have been terrible, so he’s been going to his bullpen early in most games, anyway. The hope, I suppose, is that Tracy keeps going to his bullpen early, but with his starting pitchers allowing fewer runs than they have been. It’s a lot better to call the bullpen when you’re ahead 4-3 than when you’re losing 6-4.

So this should be interesting. For a week or two. Which, if history’s any guide, is how long this experiment will last.

Said Jorge Arangure Jr. of ESPN the Magazine:

… Tracy seemed almost stunned when talking to reporters about the plan. Obviously, this is not what he expected prior to the season when the Rockies were a trendy pick to win the NL West. Instead, just minutes before taking the field for batting practice Tuesday, Tracy gathered his pitching staff and told the players the surprising news.

The asterisk in the plan is that nothing is definite. Tracy conceded that anything could be modified should one of his starters excel during a particular start. The 75-pitch limit could be ignored. Heck, if Guthrie pitches well in relief, it’s not inconceivable to think that he would be placed back in the rotation.

For the past several weeks, Colorado reportedly has been looking to trade Guthrie — who is making $8.2 million this season, the highest salary on the pitching staff, excluding the injured Jorge De La Rosa. A demotion to the bullpen won’t help his trade market. But the only way for Guthrie to reclaim any trade value is to pitch well, and maybe pitching out of the bullpen is the solution.

“We don’t know what’s going to come out of this,” Tracy said.

Hey, credit Tracy — at least it wasn’t bland and boring.

And finally, this from Troy E. Renck of the Denver Post:

… The defining moment, with the beaker fizzing, will arrive when a starter actually performs well. But Tracy insisted that even if a starter is working a shutout, he will be removed at roughly 75 pitches.

“He has got to come out, because he has to pitch four days later,” Tracy said. “But if he goes five innings, he has pitched you to the point where you can go to a bullpen with some very significant people.”

But as easy as Colorado’s woes might have been to predict, you might not be able to say the same about Atlanta’s – at least, that’s what Michael Barr of Fangraphs argues.

And Tim Lincecum’s struggles are another thing unto themselves, becoming fodder for a discussion of luck and pitching by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs.

… Saying that Tim Lincecum has been unlucky is probably not true. He’s struggling with his command, falling behind in counts more often, and throwing pitches that are rightfully getting crushed based on movement and location. If Wells had fouled off that fastball on Saturday, that would have been luck, so maybe you could argue that Lincecum is suffering from a lack of good luck (in that it’s quite possible that hitters aren’t missing his mistakes as often as they used to), but that’s not the same thing as suffering from bad luck.

And that’s why we should probably try to reduce our usage of the word luck to begin with. Yes, there are bloopers that fall in, broken bat squibs that find holes, or times when a defender just falls down and the pitcher gets blamed for his defensive miscue. There are definitely instances of luck in baseball, and they do effect the results that a pitcher is credited with. I’m not arguing against DIPS theory – I’m just saying that perhaps we should try to do a better job of talking about it when a guys results aren’t lining up with his process because he’s throwing bad pitches that hitters aren’t missing.

What Voros McCracken and the others who followed his research really showed us wasn’t that pitchers have no control over batted ball outcomes, but that the things that cause those gaps don’t hold up over time. Lincecum can be doing things that are causing him to give up a lot of runs now but history suggests that he won’t keep doing those things in the future. He’s either going to figure out how to fix his command or he’s going to change his approach to pitching, and he’s not going to keep locating 91 MPH fastballs middle-in at the belt with regularity. Maybe hitters will start missing his mistakes more often. Maybe he’ll start making fewer mistakes. Whatever the cause is, the effect is likely to be that Lincecum is going to get better results in the future than he has in the first two months of the season.

But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned his poor results to date. The word luck absolves him of blame for the outcome, which shouldn’t be what we’re trying to do. Blame Tim Lincecum for throwing terrible pitches – just realize that it doesn’t mean that he’s going to keep throwing terrible pitches in the future.

* * *

Elsewhere around the small white stitched globe …

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%


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%


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 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%
Mar 02

How the NL West starting rotations compare

For ESPNLosAngeles.com, I have a piece comparing the Dodger starting rotation to its rivals in the National League West.

Here’s how it begins …

Clayton Kershaw might have gone 4-0 against Tim Lincecum last year, but behind the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner comes doubt about whether the Dodgers’ starting rotation matches up with the top contenders in the NL West. …

Read the rest here …

Continue reading

Feb 25

The shaky bet on Chris Capuano

It’s nice to add a weapon to your decision-making, but there’s always the question of how you use it.

The signing of Chris Capuano (shown above pitching a two-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts against the Braves last August) has been framed as evidence of the Dodgers placing more faith in sabermetrics, according to this article by Ken Gurnick at MLB.com.

… The Dodgers signed Capuano to a two-year, $10 million free agent deal after newly hired front-office number-cruncher Alex Tamin determined that the lefty fly-ball pitcher was a double fit in the club’s tight payroll and spacious ballpark. …

… Doubters will say his effectiveness tailed off after the second time through the lineup and only 14 of his 31 outings were quality starts. The Dodgers will counter that improvement in his strikeout stats mirror the improvement that led to his finest season of 2005.

His career stats in NL ballparks isn’t pretty: 4-9 with a 12.93 ERA and 11 homers in 86 1/3 innings. Last year it improved to 1-2, 2.89 and one homer in 18 2/3 innings. (Note: I think something went wrong with the stats in this paragraph.)

“My feeling is that the last couple years, you can notice the metrics are a lot like ’05 and ’06 when I had my best years,” Capuano said. “What that told me confirmed what I was feeling, I feel as strong or better as when I was 25. …

The problem I see with this analysis is that you need look no further than Ted Lilly to see its limitations. Lilly, also a lefty fly-ball pitcher, has continued to give up prodigious numbers of home runs in a Dodger uniform – 41 in 269 1/3 innings, even if he did allow none in his final six starts in 2011.

Lilly’s adjusted ERA with Chicago was 122 in 3 1/2 seasons and 115 before he was traded to the Dodgers in mid-2010. With the Dodgers, it has been 98, including 94 last year. Lilly is 36 now, and unlike with Hiroki Kuroda, you can basically say the aging process is showing and that Dodger Stadium isn’t capable of stopping it.

Capuano is 33, which, coincidentally, is the age Lilly was when he unexpectedly had by far the best season of his career in adjusted ERA, 144. But unless you believe that 33 is a magic age, this may not work out well.

Yes, Capuano has been recovering from surgery and struck out 168 in 186 innings for the Mets last year – that does seem significant. But his adjusted ERA was 82, and in his entire career it has never been higher than 113. When he’s not striking out guys, he’s getting hit – hard. And it was only getting worse in 2011: In the second half of the season, he struck out 81 in 83 1/3 innings … with 14 homers allowed and a 5.08 ERA.

And what’s supposed to happen on the road, where Capuano pitches half his games, where he had a 5.42 ERA and allowed 17 homers in 84 2/3 innings? That’s a homer inside of every five innings.

At $10 million guaranteed over two years, do the stats really show that the Dodgers have gotten a good deal?

Sure, Capuano should pitch better in Dodger Stadium than elsewhere – but he needs to pitch better, because – guess what – the guy in the other uniform is going to pitch better, too. And that’s against a Dodger offense that, shall we say, could be challenged.

That’s what I’m afraid the Dodgers haven’t taken into account. Dodger fans will certainly hope for the best, and as a No. 5 starter expectations should be kept in check anyway, but if he’s still deserving of a spot in the starting rotation by July, that might be a surprise.

Jan 26

Can Kershaw repeat?

At lunch Wednesday with Dodger publications director Jorge Martin, we marveled with glee not only at Clayton Kershaw’s magnificent 2011 season, but our inability, despite knowing all about how hard the job of pitching is, not to expect him to dominate every time out in 2012. Our heads tell us he might not pitch as well this year as last. Our hearts tell us he can pitch even better.

It got me to wondering how pitchers with seasons like Kershaw’s followed them up the following campaign. And the news isn’t exactly good.

Here are two charts – the first an appetizer, the second the main course:

Top 20 individual Dodger seasons since 1958

Player Year Age ERA+ ERA+ next year   Change
Koufax 1966 30 190 Retired  
Koufax 1964 28 188 160   -28
Hershiser 1985 26 171 90   -81
Brown 2000 35 169 151 * -18
Brown 2003 38 169 110 * -59
Kershaw 2011 23 163 TBD  
Sutton 1972 27 162 144   -18
Sutton 1981 35 161 112   -49
Koufax 1965 29 160 190   30
Koufax 1963 27 159 160   1
Nomo 1995 26 150 122   -28
Welch 1985 28 150 106   -44
Drysdale 1964 27 149 118   -31
Messersmith 1975 29 149 125   -24
Hershiser 1988 29 149 149   0
Hersisher 1989 30 149 88   -61
Hooton 1981 31 148 87 * -61
Penny 2007 29 147 67 * -70
Hooton 1977 27 147 130   -17
Reuss 1981 32 146 113   -33
Average   29 159 123 4 -33

* did not pitch enough innings to qualify for ERA title in following year

Top 50 individual MLB seasons since 1958, ages 21-25

Player Year Age ERA+ ERA+ next year   Change
P. Martinez 1997 25 219 163   -56
Z. Greinke 2009 25 205 100   -105
D. Chance 1964 23 198 108   -90
C. Buchholz 2010 25 187 122 * -65
V. Blue 1971 21 185 102 * -83
J. Santana 2004 25 182 155   -27
B. Saberhagen 1989 25 180 118   -62
K. Appier 1993 25 179 131   -48
M. Prior 2003 22 179 110 * -69
D. Righetti 1981 22 174 105   -69
F. Hernandez 2010 24 174 111   -63
T. Lincecum 2009 25 173 114   -59
F. Hernandez 2009 23 172 174   2
J. Peavy 2004 23 171 134   -37
J. D’Amico 2000 24 171 72 * -99
T. Lincecum 2008 24 169 173   4
J. Candelaria 1977 23 169 115   -54
R. Clemens 1986 23 169 154   -15
D. Ellsworth 1963 23 167 99   -68
K. Millwood 1999 25 167 99   -68
A. Anderson 1988 25 166 110   -56
K. Appier 1992 25 166 179   13
S. McDowell 1968 25 165 127   -38
T. Seaver 1969 24 165 143   -22
B. Webb 2003 24 165 129   -36
S. Carlton 1969 24 164 111   -53
M. Mussina 1994 25 164 145   -19
C. Kershaw 2011 23 163 TBD  
B. Sheets 2004 25 162 128   -34
G. Nolan 1972 24 162 102 * -60
T. John 1968 25 161 119   -42
S. McDowell 1965 22 161 120   -41
J. Magrane 1988 23 161 124   -37
C. Zambrano 2004 23 160 135   -25
A. Hammaker 1983 25 159 164 * 5
J. Jurrjens 2009 23 159 84 * -75
R. Halladay 2002 25 159 145   -14
M. Fidrych 1976 21 159 149 * -10
B. Zito 2002 24 158 135   -23
B. Blyleven 1973 22 158 142   -16
D. Bosman 1969 25 158 118   -40
M. Mussina 1992 23 157 100   -57
J. Guzman 1992 25 156 109   -47
R. Jones 1975 25 156 120   -36
A. Pettitte 1997 25 156 104   -52
F. Tanana 1977 23 154 99   -55
D. McLain 1968 24 154 135   -19
J. Palmer 1969 23 154 134   -20
R. Clemens 1987 24 154 141   -13
T. Glavine 1991 25 153 134   -19
Average   24 168 125 8 -43

As you can see, there’s a host of great names on these lists, including Hall of Famers and Hall of Very Gooders. Just because there’s a decline after a great season doesn’t mean that there weren’t great seasons in their future.

But a decline following a great season for a young pitcher is common, and on average pretty significant.

So the challenge for our dear Kershaw is to buck history. This much I’ll say – if anyone can do it, if anyone can imitate Sandy Koufax (at a younger age), he can.

Sep 07

Strasburg and Lilly: Mach speed and mock speed

From ESPN Stats and Information, regarding Tuesday’s starting pitchers:

Category   Stephen Strasburg   Ted Lilly
Total pitches        56       105
Time on mound      21:28     54:40
Average inning      4:18     10:56
Longest             5:06     16:36
Shortest            3:20      4:47
Seconds per pitch   23.0      31.2
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.

Apr 20

Dodger bullpen just sad

The 2011 Dodger bullpen to date:

Jonathan Broxton: 7 1/3 innings, 13 baserunners, five strikeouts
Hong-Chih Kuo (disabled list): 2 2/3 innings, five baserunners, four strikeouts
Matt Guerrier: 8 2/3 innings, six baserunners, five strikeouts
Kenley Jansen: 8 2/3 innings, 19 baserunners, 13 strikeouts
Blake Hawksworth: 9 2/3 innings, 13 baserunners, six strikeouts
Mike MacDougal: 7 1/3 innings, nine baserunners, four strikeouts
Lance Cormier: seven innings, 16 baserunners, two strikeouts
Ramon Troncoso: 2 2/3 innings, 12 baserunners, zero strikeouts
Total: 54 innings, 93 baserunners, 39 strikeouts

Hmm …

At least Vicente Padilla might be back soon. He struck out three in 1 1/3 innings Tuesday in his second minor-league rehab outing. He could replace Troncoso.

Will Rubby De La Rosa get a rapid promotion like Jerry Sands? It doesn’t seem impossible, though I think the Dodgers would like the inexperienced minor-leaguer to get more starting-pitcher innings under his belt.

Jansen’s performance has been shocking, but I would keep him on the major-league roster for now.

* * *

Not that I’m expecting Ivan De Jesus Jr. to be a savior for the moribund offense, but with journeyman Aaron Miles offering seven singles, a double, an HBP, a sacrifice and no walks in 37 plate appearances, maybe Don Mattingly could throw some at-bats to the kid.

About that offense, here’s Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

… When you really examine it, though, it isn’t that hard to figure out. Juan Uribe, as he has done for most of his career, continues to flail at just about anything that is thrown within a mile of the strike zone. James Loney has brought his second-half nosedive of 2010 into 2011. And how about that pinch-hitting appearance by the still-gimpy Marcus Thames in the seventh inning, when he whiffed on three consecutive pitches from Braves reliever Jonny Venters with the tying run on third and one out?

And speaking of key situations, the Dodgers (8-10) — who fell into a third-place tie with the San Diego Padres in the National League West and still trail the division-leading Colorado Rockies by 4 1/2 games — are now hitting .184 (28 for 152) for the season with runners in scoring position, with 35 strikeouts.

And after Casey Blake grounded out to leave the bases loaded in the seventh, at a point when the Dodgers trailed by one run, the Dodgers were hitless in eight at-bats this year with the bases jammed. Not sure which is worse, the fact they have gone 18 games without getting a hit with the bases loaded, or the fact they have had the bases loaded for just eight at-bats. …

Even more simply, the Dodger offense has a .306 on-base percentage and a .344 slugging percentage. Not far from what was predicted, not enough to get the job done, especially with the pitching staff’s disappointing 4.87 ERA.

Mar 03

Looking back on a quake-free year in San Francisco

With Giants righty Matt Cain having to rest an inflamed elbow, Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles uses the occasion to marvel at San Francisco’s 2010:

It’s tough to explain now. The Giants won it all. It’s hard to go back and rediscover that sense of urgency. What were we all worried about? The trick is to start the season with a garbage offense, and then a) hope that a journeyman minor league free agent turns into vintage Carlos Beltran, b) count on a rookie catcher to come up and propel the offense for a month, and c) scour the waiver wire in case there are teams in Florida giving away productive outfielders. It turns out we were just being paranoid.

But when you hear this

“(Cain) has not thrown a baseball since he came down with elbow inflammation on Sunday, making it seem unlikely he will miss only one turn in the rotation. At the same time, he seems totally unconcerned about what he confessed is the first elbow issue of his career.”

… you remember why there was urgency in the first place. The Giants were built around young pitching. Young pitching is beautiful, like, oh, a shiny idol made of solid gold. But while you stand there, mouth agape, marveling at the golden treasure, you hear the boulder. The boulder isn’t evil. It’s just obeying the laws of physics. And it’s going to crush you. It’s going to crush you real dead-like. …

And when I hear that Matt Cain’s elbow is barking, it makes me appreciate just how danged fortunate the Giants and their fans all were. The Giants made it through an entire season with four young starting pitchers, and there weren’t any injury concerns. They didn’t have to recall Todd Wellemeyer. They didn’t have to shoehorn in Henry Sosa for a start or two. The young pitchers were good, and they were healthy. …

It was special. Never take it for granted.

* * *

Alex Belth of Bronx Banter passes along Duke Snider stories from oldtime scribes Roger Angell and Dick Young.

* * *

There will be a $1 Dodger Dog day at Dodger Stadium on May 30 when the Rockies play.

* * *

This morning, the Dodgers played a ‘B’ game in which Ted Lilly made his first spring appearance, as Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com notes. And as Ken Gurnick of MLB.com notes, Lilly’s relief crew included three former No. 1 picks – Zach Lee, Ethan Martin and Aaron Miller – whose signing bonuses alone totaled nearly $8 million. Lee was the only one of the trio to allow a run.

Later on, the Dodgers have their first night game of Spring Training …

Dodgers at Reds, 6:05 p.m.