The Dodgers plan for their back end starters in 2014 was...interesting. While the team featured an intimidating front three: Clayton Kershaw! Zack Greinke! Hyun-Jin Ryu! The plan for the back end of the rotation seemed to be just find whatever pitcher people had heard of or who would take a one-year deal and run him out there: dan haren. josh beckett. paul maholm.
This seemed all well and good, but Clayton Kershaw's early injury that totally wasn't because of Australia we swear means that the Dodgers are going to be using more of these pitchers instead of these! pitchers for the first half of the season. While Haren has been great so far, having to sit through another five-hour Josh Beckett start is an eighth amendment violation, so it's natural that the Dodgers look for help, and the obvious place is the newly repaired elbow of Chad Billingsley.
Billingsley has long been a source of controversy among Dodger fans. Despite being one of the best starting pitchers in baseball from 2007 to 2008 at only 23, Bills was considered to be mentally weak by the media, and sparked several blog wars. However, after tens of thousands of words were fired, one of the best young pitchers in baseball suddenly wasn't. Since the start of 2009, Bills has thrown 732 innings of 3.84 ERA ball, good for a slightly above average1 ERA+ of 100. There are some who say that Billingsley has been unlucky over that time period, since he's usually under-pitched his FIP, but if you look at a better run estimator like SIERA2 Bills' numbers have been dead on.
A lot goes into SIERA, but the gist is that Chad's penchant for walks while not having strong fly ball or ground ball tendencies leave him more open to big innings than the average pitcher. There's nothing in Billingsley's numbers that suggests a bounce back to that dominant 23 year old.
The idea has been floated that Bills could come back stronger following Tommy John surgery. Conventional wisdom suggests that pitchers come back from the surgery better than ever. This thought has become so prevalent that 50 percent of high school pitchers would choose to get elective Tommy John. However, a new elbow suddenly turning a guy into something he wasn't before has been said to be a myth by Dr. Frank Jobe himself.
When a pitcher comes in with elbow problems, you often see that their ligaments were already wearing out well before. Maybe four or five years ago they could throw a 95 mile an hour fastball, but they've had that ability diminished as the ligament's been stretched. What the surgery does is restore the ligament's stability to where it was four or five years ago. A pitcher might say the operation did it, but it's just more stability in the arm contributing to better mechanics.
If Billingsley's problem was reduced velocity, there may be something here, but his fastball velocity has been remarkably consistent over the years, topping out at 92 mph in 2008 and sticking at 91.5 from 2010-2012. As nice as it would be, a repaired elbow probably won't be the answer to whatever has plagued Billingsley since 2008.
So what do we expect from Chad Billingsley? The same inconsistent guy we've seen since 2009. A guy that could go anywhere from solid mid rotation guy to middling back end guy. He's not going to be Chad Billingsley! He probably won't be chad billingsley. all the Dodgers need is just regular old Chad Billingsley.
1. 100 is a league average ERA+, but a starter averages around 95, and a reliever is around 105.↩
2. Skill Interactive ERA, or SIERA, is better at estimating runs than other peripheral based stats because it puts them into context. For example, a guy who gets a lot of walks but also a lot of ground balls will look better since he'll turn more double plays.↩