Did Chad Billingsley Sell Himself Short?

Last night word leaked out that the Dodgers had reached a contract extension with Chad Billingsley, with the reported figures putting the deal somewhere in the range of $35 to $36 million for three years, with the contract not kicking in until next winter – he will still earn the $6.3 million salary in 2011 that was already agreed upon. The deal covers his final arbitration year and the first two years of free agency at an average rate of around $12 million per season.

Given what other pitchers with similar service time have been signing for of late, however, it looks to me that Billingsley may have left a lot of money on the table in order to sign this deal. While he might not have the reputation as one of the premier pitchers in the game, his arbiter-friendly numbers stack up well against some bigger name pitchers. In 4+ seasons, he’s thrown 826 innings, posted 59 wins, and has a 3.55 ERA.

Last winter, Felix Hernandez was at the same stage of his career. He was arbitration eligible for the second time, coming off an initial $3.8 million award in his first trip through the process – the same amount Billingsley received. He had thrown 905 innings in his career, posting 58 wins and a 3.45 ERA, eerily similar to what Billingsley had posted. He signed away his final two years of arbitration and his first three years of free agency for $78 million, an average of nearly $16 million per year, which is also the same contract that Justin Verlander got from the Tigers last winter. Verlander was arbitration eligible for the second time, coming off a $3.7 million award in his first trip through, and had career marks of 840 innings pitched, 65 wins, and a 3.92 ERA. He received barely more than Felix received, signing for $80 million over five years.

While it’s easy to scoff at a comparison between Felix and Billingsley, Verlander is actually a decent comparison, even by metrics that provide better information than wins and ERA. To start, Verlander was the same age when he signed his extension as Billingsley is now, so their numbers come from similar stages of development. They have nearly identical FIP and xFIPs as well, as Billingsley is at 3.68/4.05, while Verlander’s marks through 2009 put him at 3.80/4.15. Verlander’s marks are a little bit better since they came in the American League, but the difference is fairly minimal.

Now, Verlander’s 2009 season was significantly better than Billingsley’s 2010 – he threw an extra 50 innings and simply pitched better than Billingsley ever has, and I’m not saying that Billingsley is as good as Verlander. I’m simply noting that their statistical profiles at a similar stage of their careers are pretty similar, whether you look at traditional metrics (as the arbiter would) or whether you look at more advanced metrics. Billingsley’s agent could have made a pretty convincing argument that Verlander was a realistic comparison to work from, and even if all parties agreed that he should not get quite the same deal as the Tigers and Mariners handed out, the general framework for a pitcher at this level of service time and prior performance had been pretty well established.

Instead of getting 5/80, though, Billingsley settled for a contract that essentially pays him $43 million over four years once you factor in his 2011 salary that was agreed upon to avoid arbitration. That contract is essentially in line with what Zack Greinke and Josh Johnson received in their extensions at the same point of their careers – Greinke got 4/38 from the Royals before the 2009 season, while Johnson got 4/39 from the Marlins last winter. These seem to be the two deals that the Billingsley contract was actually built upon, but while both of them are certainly terrific pitchers, neither of them had the same resume that Billingsley came to the table with.

We’ll start with Johnson, since his deal also came last winter and is more recent. He was coming off a first year arbitration award of just $1.4 million, and he signed the deal with career numbers that included just 481 innings pitched, 34 wins, and a 3.40 ERA. He had pitched well in 2009, but had a history of arm problems and had spent nearly half of his Major League career on the disabled list.

Greinke was also coming off a first year arbitration award of $1.4 million, and while he’d thrown more innings than Johnson (659, to be exact), his career ERA was 4.28 and his W-L record was 34-45. He obviously went on to do quite well in the season immediately after he signed the extension, but that wasn’t in evidence when he agreed upon the deal. His track record to that point was rather inconsistent, and he didn’t have the quantity or quality of performance that Billingsley could point to in negotiations.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the extension that Wandy Rodriguez signed with the Astros just a few months ago. Rodriguez was in his final year of arbitration, so he was at the point where Billingsley would have been at the end of the 2011 season – when his new deal actually kicks in. Rodriguez signed a 3 year, $34 million extension with the Astros covering the same years that Billingsley just gave up to get some security. His career numbers – 985 innings, 62 wins, and a 4.18 ERA.

If, this year, Billingsley threw 160 innings, posted a 7.43 ERA, and won just three games, he would end the year with those same career numbers. If Wandy Rodriguez’s deal set the market for what the final year of arbitration and first two years of free agency are worth, Billingsley essentially locked in a price that would be fair (based on career numbers) if he was the worst pitcher in baseball this year.

Perhaps he really wanted to stay in Los Angeles, and he had motivations beyond simply squeezing the Dodgers for every last penny he could get. Whatever the reasoning, though, it seems pretty clear that Billingsley left a lot of money on the table with this deal.

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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

40 Responses to “Did Chad Billingsley Sell Himself Short?”

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  1. filihok says:

    Ned Colletti is a genius

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  2. Vociferous Sam says:

    I get that everybody looks down on Colletti (rightfully so), but the tone of this article probably would’ve been much more in the vein of “major win for team X” if this happened anywhere else.

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  3. legaryd says:

    I think most observers would consider Verlander a superior talent and a better bet to be elite going forward. I also think that when you compare Verlander to Billingsley you should account for Verlander’s “lost year” in 2008 when put up a 4.84 ERA and an 11-17 record (I know he still had a 3+ WAR season and a decent 4.17 FIP, but it’s still lower than what most expect him to do now).

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  4. AustinRHL says:

    Billingsley is really one of those guys that makes you say, “He has a 3.55 career ERA? Am I misreading something? I never would have guessed that his numbers were so good.” This may not really factor into arbitration, but it surely would affect negotiation for a contract extension – right?

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    • phoenix2042 says:

      I’m the opposite, actually. I have always thought he was better than actually was. He was always the “ace in waiting” to me that we all were just waiting to step up and take the reigns. But that’s just me maybe.

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  5. Shauntell47 says:

    I wanted to know why everyone either seems to hate Billingsley or thinks he’s not that good. I mean, he’s a very good pitcher who had a 3.07 FIP last year, arguably his best season. He’s been worth an average of 4 WAR the last 3 seasons. Plus he’s still fairly young. What’s not to like?

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    • S.M. Jenkins says:

      Yeah, I’m with you. No, this isn’t a Zack Greinke-Justin Verlander type talent, but Chad Billingsley is a nice low end 2/3 starter who is durable & also has shown some improvement. This is a very good extension given out by the Dodgers considering where Bills is at now & where he could likely be even by the end of 2011.

      A lot of the perception issue is likely still due to being dropped from the playoff rotation a couple of years back in my opinion.

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    • NM says:

      Yeah, I like Billingsley quite a bit. Hes been very durable over the last 3 seasons (at least 190 IP each year) and has maintained an FIP and xFIP under 4 and all of them; good enough for an average WAR of ~4 in that time frame. Nice deal for LA.

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    • harry says:

      I like Billingsley a lot, but I have noticed the same thing – a very tempered public opinion of him. I think this is due to his inconsistency – when he’s hot, he’s hot, (like his last three starts of July – 3 starts, 21.2 innings, 0 runs, 6 walks, 12 Ks), but when he’s not on he pitches like a 7.43 ERA pitcher.. That and the inconsistent Ks he gets – some games he gets 3-5, others 7+.. However, I do think he’s a very useful pitcher – a good #2 and a fantastic #3… And durability has to count for something, even if every pitcher is a ticking time bomb..

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  6. DrBGiantsfan says:

    There are just some people who are willing to take a lower financial ceiling in return for eliminating risk. Billz strikes me as the kind of guy who just might think this way, kind of like Matt Cain in SF. He’s set for life if he blows out his shoulder in August.

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    • Ari Collins says:

      Yes, you have to give up some upside in order to minimize your financial risk when you sign pre-FA, but didn’t he give up too much money for that security? The “cost” of that financial security, with two years left to FA and with those career numbers, should have been less.

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      • Seattleite says:

        It’s also possible that it was a take it or leave it offer from LA. At that point, what do you do? Do you take the dough and be set for life, or cross your fingers and go year to year until you hit FA?

        I’d take the money.

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    • Scout Finch says:

      Billingsley has always reminded me of Matt Cain. With more K’s, BB’s & groundballs.

      If his slider is on, he’s a very dangerous pitcher.

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      • AA says:

        Since when does Billingsley throw much of a slider? No more than 3.5%, if that is even accurate, since 2006. The “slider” you are thinking about is his cutter – and it is good.

        That said, its better when he mixes in the cutter with more of a focus on his 4 seem fastball (which goes 94-96) and his really sick curve.

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    • baty says:

      2006 had a really strong class of SP prospect graduations: Liriano, Verlander, Lester, Cain, Weaver, Hamels, and J Johnson, etc…

      Just within this class, I wouldn’t compare Billingsley’s career to any of these guys. His upside is certainly within the conversation, but he still can’t put up a full season, and he still can’t run strings of efficient starts. I think the last 3 years he’s only gone 8IP or more maybe a half a dozen times, and he rarely goes back to back starts with 7+IP. At times he’s looked like he might be able to turn the corner, but it just hasn’t happened. His secondary pitches have been pretty effective the last few years, but his legitimacy relies on his fastball command.

      I think he could have waited one more year, but I don’t think it’s a bad deal at all. He essentially chose security over risk, and I think it’s pretty reasonable. I wouldn’t be surprised if he finally turns in a season where he establishes some consistency, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if this is his plateau. Either way, he’ll get one more shot at a decent contract when he’s 30 (if he stays healthy).

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      • Double D says:

        The biggest difference between Billingsley and those mentioned by Baty above are the ones mentioned either already are, have been, or could easily be an ace of a staff. Billingsley strikes me as a #2, or #3 in a very good rotation, with Kershaw being the big fish. I agree that he has arbitration-friendly numbers (innings, strikeouts), but he has been somewhat inconsistent (second half of 09). inconsistency and injury prone have a similarity – they make the player somewhat unreliable. No ace can be unreliable, hence his #2 or #3 status. He compares most favorably to Matt Cain, who is on a 3 yr 27 mil contract. This is a solid contract for both sides which still allows him to become a free agent at 30, still in his prime, with a long track record, so he can get that 5 yr 82 mil deal at that point (a la John Lackey).

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  7. John says:

    Did he really leave that much? Maybe a few mil/year but I don’t think he was ever viewed on Felix/Verlander level, a guy that the Dodgers (rightly or wrongly) benched in the playoffs after a 5.20 post all star break ERA in 09. They think Kershaw is their “Ace” and sure Billingsley might be in that class, but really this seems like a good move for the Dodgers and a bit of a misstep for Billingsley…but this isn’t a Longoria deal. Hes been worth an average $17.5m over the past 3 years with impressively consistent periphs. So he’ll be a little underpaid, good for the Dodgers. Billingsley will be 30 when he hits FA again, hes got time.

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  8. Bpdelia says:

    these deals are curious. ,imo its just too much to give up for the security. this would b fair if this years salary had been bumped b up to the aav of the extension. i’m thinking he left about 6 or so million that he could have gotten with a bit more negotiation

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    • vivalajeter says:

      That’s easy for you to say. You weren’t just offered $36MM. Worst case scenario, he wins the CY Young every year of the contract and leaves millions on the table, so only the next 6 generations of his family are set for life instead of the next 8 generations of his family.

      If he vastly outperforms the contract though, he’ll be a 30 year old Ace hitting free agency. At that point, he can really cash in.

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  9. Ousy says:

    Hold the praise for Colletti; even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

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    • Matt says:

      They bury their nuts in the ground. How would working eyes even help them find nuts?

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      • CS Yankee says:

        You have to find the nut before you can bury it.

        If your blind though, you likely don’t bury anything…keep it near and trip over it. Which is Colletti isn’t it?

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  10. JohnnyK says:

    Maybe he figured he would have a better chance at a big deal when becoming a free agent at age 30 (when this extension expires) than – say – at 32 if he extended for 5 or 6 years?

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  11. Xenophanes says:

    The problem with comparing Felix/Verlander to Billingsley is that, while Billingsley has been pretty consistent for the past few years, Verlander and Felix had taken a major step forward the year before they signed their extensions. So, while career numbers of the three may be very close, Felix and Verlander had great recent numbers as opposed to consistently good-but-not-great numbers. Still, you have to assume he could have gotten more, but not a bad deal for someone in their mid-20’s. Big win for Colletti.

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  12. Bob says:

    I think two things come into play… first, the theory of a guaranteed income against the risk of injury, and second, the risk of suddenly losing his stuff again like he did in the second half of ’09. Billingsley did fine – no matter how you cut it, it’s a lot of money. People complain so much about player salaries being too high – but here are the same people, saying Billingsley short changed himself. You can’t have it both ways, people! Sorry – just one more piece of ammo for making player salaries confidential. In the real world, except for executives of publicly traded companies, salaries of employees are not revealed… and most companies have rules providing for discipline against anyone who discusses their salary publicly. I’ve wondered for a long time why the sports world should be any different. If player contracts were confidential, it would keep salaries down, and ditto ticket prices. What’s not to like about that?

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    • CS Yankee says:

      What’s not to like about that?

      Well for starters…

      1) All entertainers have their coin listed per movie deals, etc It adds to the lure.
      2) It helps promote the sport (more talk the better)
      3) Ticket prices wouldn’t be cheaper but owners would net more.
      4) Some fantasy teams are based upon worth per player.
      5) Because there would be no great articles like this one.

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    • YankeeFan says:

      I’ve always found the notion that if player salaries were lowered ticket prices would follow to be funny. Owners know that at the current price tickets will sell, what would their motivation be to lower the price? Do you think they would feel guilty if they made too much money?

      Anyways how exactly would making the salaries confidential lower salaries? As you mention public opinion is against high salaries, how does a negative public perception help to inflate salaries?

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      • Al Dimond says:

        It isn’t public perception — the public only meaningfully expresses its opinion on salaries by purchasing the product. It’s knowledge among players. If players weren’t allowed to discuss salaries and offers they would come into negotiations with owners at a great disadvantage. The owners know what they’re paying the players on their team, and they will have made enough offers to other players to have some idea of what the market is like. This advantage would certainly be exploited by the owners.

        I’m not an expert on HR law, but my guess is that when companies have rules in place against employees discussing their salaries those rules are very one-sided. They probably don’t prevent HR/management from going to conferences and discussing what they’re paying for particular skills in their region. So they probably benefit management greatly — which is why they are in place. Baseball has a fairly strong players’ union, and the union would never let its players on the field with a rule like that in place.

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    • Richard says:

      “In the real world, except for executives of publicly traded companies, salaries of employees are not revealed… and most companies have rules providing for discipline against anyone who discusses their salary publicly.”

      Yes, and this is just one way that owners exercise power and control over their employees.

      “I’ve wondered for a long time why the sports world should be any different.”

      For one thing, a strong union. It’s in the players collective interest to know what money is available and being paid, just as it would be in our own interests if the same situation obtained “in the real world”.

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  13. AA says:

    Billingsley is highly underrated by the baseball public, especially by Dodger fans. The guy was one of the absolute best pitchers in baseball in 2008, pitched 2009 injured and bounced back to dominate again last year. Meanwhile, his slightly more talented, left-handed teammate (who I adore, don’t get me wrong) gets more publicity because he more often puts up eye popping K numbers.

    He was one of the top prospects in baseball, one the Dodgers refused to even discuss in the Miguel Cabrera talks, and has always been well liked in the SABR community (see my earlier comment about Rob Neyer, which was in reference to Neyer’s prediction before Chad’s injury plagued 2009). I don’t see why people are discounting the guy here. I actually think comparing him to a groundballing, harder throwing version of Jered Weaver makes sense, only you replace the change with a cutter.

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    • Ivdown says:

      This is such a refreshing post. Billingsley has been such a good pitcher the last 4 or 5 years, and no one realizes it it seems like. I won’t claim that he is a top tier pitcher, but I think he could be on the back end of 2nd tier pitchers, people who are very good, but not considered aces. Last year he was worth more in WAR than Kershaw, and I was very impressed by that. He had a ridic homerun rate last year, and that was a key in that (i believe) 4.8 WAR in 10.

      A 1-2 punch of Kershaw and Billingsley could rival nearly every teams 1-2 in all of baseball. I would imagine that only about 4 or 5 other team’s 1-2 would be better.

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      • AA says:

        I don’t even know if its that many teams. The only team that stands out is Philly. I don’t think Cain is as good as either Kershaw or Billingsley, so its about a wash with the Giants. The Angels with Weaver and Haren are close to equal, but probably not quite as good.

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  14. AA says:

    …and yes, I think he probably left money on the table. I don’t find Dave Stewart to be the most effective agent.

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  15. Phillie697 says:

    Billingsley is not Verlander. Contracts are not signed to reward past performance, but is an prediction of future value. Both last year and the year prior, Verlander posted better xFIP (3.20 and 3.52 vs. 3.99 and 3.67) and WAR (8.3 and 6.3 vs. 3.2 and 4.6) than Billingsley. Josh Johnson? 3.36/3.02 and 5.6/6.3. To use those two players and compare them to Billingsley, with the intention of saying Billingsley left money on the table, is an insult to Verlander and Johnson.

    Even Wandy Rodriguez compares favorably to Billingsley (3.57/3.55 and 4.0/3.6), yet somehow you make it sound like Billingsley is the vastly superior pitcher. Maybe over the course of their careers so far, sure, but teams aren’t interested in what you’ve done, just what you might do in the future.

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  16. Rude Awakening says:

    Averaging stats over several years are a poor way to compare whether a player shows promise for the future or not. Billingsley has been inconsistant which hurts even his own perception of himself. I do think he took a little less than he is worth though. His win/loss record could be much better if the Dodgers had scored more runs for him especially in the early innings last year.

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    • AA says:

      He’s been anything but inconsistent. He got consistently better in his first three seasons, was hurt in 2009 and bounced back to have perhaps his finest season ever last year. As far as his “perception of himself” where do people get this garbage? Does he have to get cracked in the skull like Kuroda to prove himself?

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  17. egold44 says:

    Dodger fans know there is a history of Billingsley not offering the cliched post-game answers during interviews and taking full responsibility for his performance, instead spreading around the blame. He also got shelled twice in the 2008 NLCS. He seems to be maturing nicely as a pitcher and a teammate, but those black marks linger until he cements more of a track record in the right direction. I don’t think the same can be said about Justin Verlander — granted, I’m watching from a distance. Verlander made a big impression when he bounced back in his 2nd appearance of the 2006 World Series; Billingsley has yet to do that on the big stage, even though their post-season ERA and win-loss records are similar in comparison. I want to like Billingsley, I definitely like his stuff, but it’s time to grow up and shake that “baby” label.

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