Analyzing Billingsley's Gem

On Monday Chad Billingsley had one of the best starts we'll see out of a Dodger this year. He became only the 49th LA Dodger to record double digit strikouts (11) without allowing a walk. His amazing performance helped the Dodgers beat the Giants 11-1 in their home opener.  With that in mind I thought it'd be worthwhile to take a look at exactly how he did it.

Here's a table showing his pitch speeds, movement, strike percentage, and other data:

(Nibbleness is the arithmetic mean of the distance of each pitch, in inches, from the edge of a normalized strikezone. Lower indicates "more Nibbley".)

Pitch Type Average Speed Max Speed Average H-Break Average V-Break Number Thrown Strike Percentage Nibbleness Time to Plate
FF (FourSeam Fastball) 92.35 95.6 -4.60 10.79 48 58.33 5.68 0.409
CH (Changeup) 84.65 85 -7.59 7.35 2 50.00 3.92 0.444
SL (Slider) 84.23 87.1 3.26 0.46 6 100.00 6.65 0.448
CU (Curveball) 78.51 81.4 5.05 -5.31 25 52.00 8.19 0.487
FC (Cutter) 90.11 91.8 0.02 8.50 20 80.00 4.79 0.417
FT (TwoSeam Fastball) 90.85 91.2 -9.24 8.33 2 0.00 7.99 0.416

via www.brooksbaseball.net

Chad threw around the same speed on Monday as he did last year. Last year on average he threw 91.5 MPH on fastballs, 85.4 MPH on sliders, and 77.8 MPH on curveballs. One surprising thing is that although he had no walks, Chad actually didn't throw a lot of strikes with fastballs (only 28 out of 50 for strikes, which is 56%). Last year Chad threw fastballs for strikes 61.3% of the time, and considering he had no walks its surprising that he didn't have great control of his fastball. However, Chad threw a strike on all six of his sliders and sixeen of his twenty cutters. These two pitches were the key to Billingsley's success.

Another key factor is the movement on Chad's fastball, which has increased from last year (at least in this start). Last year he averaged only 2.2 inches of horizontal  movement on his fastball, but as you can see he averaged double that on his four-seamer alone against the Giants, getting 4.6 inches of break. While this won't be confused with Greg Maddux 's fastball (which averaged 8.2 inches of break last year), it's still much better than the relatively straight pitch it was in '08. We'll see if he can keep the improved break over the course of the year.

 

Here's a chart of Chad's pitches by pitch type (click to zoom):

Location_php_medium

via www.brooksbaseball.net

His fastballs were most often up and in to righties. He also liked to work the low and outsider corner. Cutters were mostly on the outside edge of the plate, although he left some of them over the middle (We'll see how this hurt him later). His sliders were generally down the middle of the plate, altough he often used this pitch to steal a strike early in the count. He did a good job keeping his curveball down and getting batters to chase out of the zone.

 

We'll do more analysis after the jump.

Here's a chart showing the break on each of Chad's pitches in inches. 0 represents a ball with no spin, so fastballs are above 0 on the y-axis because they have backspin, causing them to rise. Sliders are above 0 on the x-axis because their sidespin causes them to move horizontally. The viewpoint is from behind homeplate.
 
Billz_great_start_graph_medium

Chad's movement chart is fairly standard. He gets a decent amount of tail (thus the negative x-value) on his fastball, with his cutter moved slightly over but otherwise the same. His two changeups seem to look like his fastballs with the most tail. To improve that pitch Chad would want to have more drop on it. His sliders were relatively inconsistent movement-wise but he was still sucessful with them. His curveball was geting good break and he was able to throw it for a strike half the time. keep in mind that often the pitcher tries to throw curves for balls to try to get hitters to chase the pitch out of the zone to get a strikeout.

Here's a look at the results of each of Billingsley's pitches:

Pitch Balls Swinging Strikes Called Strikes Fouls In Play Outs Hits
Fastball 22 6 10 8 3 1
Slider 0 1 2 2 1 0
Curveball 12 6 3 3 1 0
Changeup 1 0 1 0 0 0
Cutter 4 1 2 5 4 4

What do we take from this? Well, Billingsley's off-speed stuff was awesome, for one. No one had a hit on anything but fastballs and cutters. Notuce that BIllingsley got as many swinging strikes on his curveball as his fastball, even with half as many pitches. When Chad gets ahead he should throw a lot breaking balls, because if he pitches like he did against the Giants, they're basically unhittable. If there was anything Chad did wrong it was being overreliant on his cutter. Four of the Giants' five hits were off of his cutter, including the lone extra base hit (a double by Bengie Molina). If you're wondering what Billingsley actually struck guys out with, here's a breakdown of his strikeout pitches:

Pitch Strikeouts
Fastball 4
Slider 1
Curveball 5
Changeup 0
Cutter 0

(Note: Observant readers may notice there are three unregistered pitches. For some reason Travis Ishikawa's 7th inning strikeout didn't register on PITCHf/x. It was a three pitch at bat with a called strike and two swinging strikes, but I can't tell you anything beyond that.)

Finally, we have a graph of Billingsley's release point. You can sometimes tell if a pitcher is pitching with an injury or their velocity has dropped with these types of graphs.

Billz_great_start_release_graph_medium

Fortunately, Chad looks to be quite healthy. His release point is consistent, a high three quarters release, although it does look like his arm angle changes just a bit sometime on fastballs. That said, I doubt this is tipping his pitches or has any negative consequences as long as the difference in arm angles doesn't become any more drastic. It's most likely just when Chad overthrows and loses a little control of his mechanics.

Billingsley had a night to remember against the Giants, pitching a gem and getting the win to improve the Dodgers' record to 5-3. Hopefully now you'll have a better understanding of how he accomplished this feat.

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