Baseball’s New Robin Hood
One of most pleasing developments for me this baseball season has been the progress of pitcher Chad Billingsley (pictured above in a Robin Hood costume, accompanied by other Dodger rookies and sophomores, including James Loney in a sailor suit, Andre Ethier in a pink dress and Delwyn Young as, gulp, Snow White).
A first round pick from 2003, Billingsley has been the Dodger’s number one prospect from draft day, and he made his debut in June of last year at the age of 21. In 90 innings of major league work, he delivered an adjusted ERA of 121 (3.18 in nominal terms), comfortably above average and exceptional for an athlete of his age.
Last year the fantasy baseball owner in me was screaming at the Dodgers to give Billingsley regular time in the rotation (there are few things less valuable in fantasy than a middle reliever with an unpredictable workload).
This year Billingsley came into the year still looking for that regular turn. The Dodgers decided to let veteran Brett Tomko keep his rotation slot, and Billingsley was again sent to the bullpen.
Billingsley's chance came on June 21, following an injury to Jason Schmidt. It was an inauspicious occasion: he threw 70 pitches to 16 Toronto batters, and left after just 3 2/3 innings having allowed two runs and three walks, while striking out one. His next start, in Arizona, was even worse – he allowed five runs in four innings, walked another three batters and had just two strikeouts.
Fortunately, Los Angeles was out of options. Billingsley kept pitching, and over the comings months made 17 starts, delivering a 7-4 record on a 3.16 ERA. In his 99 2/3 innings as a starter this year, he’s struck out 88 batters and surrendered 41 walks. His job is secure.
Over 140 innings this season, Billingsley’s delivered an adjusted ERA of 144 – a substantial improvement over 2006, and a figure that would put him among the league leaders if he met the minimum innings pitched requirement (Atlanta’s John Smoltz is fifth overall with an adjusted ERA of 146, while Jake Peavy holds a commanding lead at 174).
There’s not too much behind the scenes to worry about. His BABIP this season is .297, which I'm guessing is a bit high for a guy whose home park is Dodger Stadium – especially since his BABIP at home is .323. Presumably that should come down next year, although his away-BABIP of .247 will likely also come up.
The strikeout rates have been very good (7.9 per 9ip), and his walk rate (3.7) is a bit high but improving. Since the start of August – which spans 9 games – he’s had a 2.43 ERA over 55 2/3 IP with 54 SO and 19 BB (the latter reflecting per game rates of 8.8 SO and 3.1). There's also been a big drop in his HR rate – although that was inevitable given that his rate was distorted by a disastrous opening to the season.
I'm reluctant to call any 55 inning span an improvement (or decline) based on where it falls in the season, but Billingsley's very young, and my guess is he's learning and getting better. At the very least we can say that since the start of August he's been a superlative pitcher.
All of which makes me wonder: if he's a starter for a full season next year, what will those numbers look like? I don't have an answer to that right now, just a sense of excitement at seeing Billingsley live up to his potential.
And what of the Robin Hood costume? For that, I'll give Billingsley the last word (links added):
A lot of people know about teams hazing their rookies and younger players. The vets had us do a little costume party after we finished the Chicago series. I was Robin Hood...no tights...got lucky. Other guys had it way worse, like Snow White, Popeye, a barely dressed fat woman, and others. When we got to San Fran. that night, the bus dropped us off about 6 blocks from the hotel, so we could show off our lovely outfits. It was quite entertaining. I'll work on getting some photos for all to see.