Chad Billingsley Gets Friendly With Strike Zone

I had the opportunity to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers game on Saturday, which saw Chad Billingsley face off with Barry Zito. While I knew Billingsley was having a resurgence of sorts, his stellar outing versus the San Francisco Giants on this day sent me to the Fangraphs leader board where you can see him currently at 2.3 wins above replacement — hanging out with the likes of Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Madison Bumgarner. Despite posting just six wins thus far, it turns out that Chad Billingsley is having a rather superb season, and I’m not too sure that many saw it coming after a disappointing 2011.

It seems like Billingsley is kind of perpetually overlooked as a quality starting pitcher. In the last five years, he’s amassed 16.4 WAR, just a hair behind James Shields, Ryan Dempster, and Matt Cain in roughly the same number of games started. And if he’s been underrated for a number of years, it was 2011 that took a good deal of remaining luster off his coat, and much of it was earned.

In 2011, Billingsley’s strikeout rate fell below 20% for the first time since his rookie season, his swinging strike rate was down to 7.6%, representing the bottom of a three year slide, and his BB/9 rate was over four. He was using virtually the same repertoire and demonstrated no significant change in velocity yet his results weren’t close to his 2010 season.

One of the central problems Billingsley had in 2011 was getting hit hard by left handed batters. Lefties hit .278/.382/.415 off Billingsley in 2011, and much of that was wrapped up in a miserable 13% walk rate. This season, he’s walking lefties at almost half the rate at 7.4% and their overall line against him thus far is .249/.307/407. What, if anything, has he changed?

He hasn’t totally overhauled his approach, but there are some distinct changes in his pitch selection against left handers this season. He’s going to his four seam fastball far more regularly and he’s almost abandoned his cutter:

With this modification in approach versus LHB, he’s also seeing more swings and misses. Most notably on his four seam fastball and curve since he’s using them as his primary two pitches against left handed batters. The change isn’t dramatic to be sure, but it’s certainly progress for Billingsley.

So he’s changed his repertoire to go with a more fastball-heavy approach to LHB and he’s producing better swing-and-miss results. But then there’s all those pesky right handed batters, against whom he’s actually struggling by his standards. This might have to with a renewed interest in keeping his walk rate down and pounding the strike zone. His walk rate is at the lowest of his career at 6.9%, and if you’re a “per 9” fan, it’s just 2.67 versus his career rate of almost 3.8 BB/9.

The impact of the following chart is somewhat lost in the scale, but when you compare this year to 2011, he is working himself into pitchers counts more frequently and falling behind far less (I left 2-1 out because the results were almost identical and the percentages were so high that it threw the whole thing out of whack):

Billingsley isn’t a world-beater, he’s not the ace the Dodgers might have thought they had when they took him with their first pick back in 2003. But he’s finding success with his renewed approach, and better yet, if you’re a Dodger fan, he’s now seemingly signed to a pretty club-friendly deal should his health remain steady. The Dodgers are committed to $35 million through 2014, plus a club option for $14 million in 2015 when he’ll still just be 30 years old. He’s almost a lock to be a 3.5 win pitcher in 2012, and if he can maintain a 3 WAR standard over the next couple of seasons, that’s a pretty nice (and economical) complement to Clayton Kershaw, who can’t become a free agent until 2015.

He more than rebounded from a disappointing 2011. Billingsley seemed to learn from the down year and he and the Dodgers consciously modified his approach without making wholesale changes to the kind of pitcher that he is, and that plan has been awfully successful in 2012.




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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.


7 Responses to “Chad Billingsley Gets Friendly With Strike Zone”

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  1. phattonez says:

    Don’t tell this to typical Dodger fans. They abhor the guy. They think Aaron Harang has been a better starter. Yes, he had an awful year last year, but people had been telling him for years to get rid of his cutter. It’s worked out great this year, apparently. Hopefully the W-L record and ERA will start to reflect that so that he’ll get a better reputation in LA. Until then, all I ever hear is “mental case”, “weak willed”, and other BS.

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    • Fletch says:

      Yeah, I’m a Dodger fan and that’s about all I hear/read about Billingsley from other fans. Everyone seems to bring up something from the ’08 or ’09 NLCS where he allegedly refused to hit a Phillie batter in retaliation and is therefore not mentally cut out to be an MLB pitcher. It’s a shame in my opinion, since he been an above-average starter for most of his career, and players like that are pretty valuable.

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    • Bip says:

      Billingsley hate is the reason why I can’t read comments of dodgers.com

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  2. James says:

    He’s basically been a league average guy the last 4 years. In my opinion, this is a case where the FIP-based WAR overrates someone…

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    • Michael Barr says:

      hmm.

      2008 NL League AVG SP: 4.41 ERA, 4.37 FIP
      2009 NL League AVG SP: 4.30 ERA, 4.28 FIP
      2010 NL League AVG SP: 4.05 ERA, 4.06 FIP
      2011 NL League AVG SP: 3.94 ERA, 3.92 FIP
      2012 NL League AVG SP: 4.03 ERA, 3.95 FIP

      Bills has been better, and sometimes far better, than league average in every year but 2011 — barely below league average in ERA. He’s had far better strikeout rates than league average in each of those years.

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      • James says:

        My opinion is FIP is no good for him, and his value depends on what WAR formula you choose to use… this year is illustrative – he’s the only Dodger starter whose ERA is above is FIP/xFIP. His park/league adjusted ERAs are basically league average since 2008. Including 2008 also skews the data in his favor, hence “last 4 years” qualifier in my comment.

        Fangraphs WAR gives you an idea of “what he could be”, not necessarily what he is. The other pitchers mentioned above seem to have a much stronger correlation between Bref WAR and Fangraphs WAR.

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  3. AA says:

    Billingsley is a really, really good starting pitcher. He has been since he started his career. Some fans foolishly crap on him, but there is no question that the guy has value in any starting rotation in baseball.

    Indeed, Chad Moriyama did a great analysis a few years ago on why Billingsley should throw more 4-seam fastballs – the guy can throw 95 easily when he wants to and has plenty of natural movement. Every time he has a “resurgence”, it directly correlates to more use of his fastball. Every time he slumps, you see cutters galore. You would think they would get the hint at this point.

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