Friday in Peoria, Chad Billingsley is set to see his first game action since breaking his leg last November. Billingsley will take the mound for the Dodgers at Peoria Stadium against the Seattle Mariners.
The pressure for Billingsley won't really come today; spring games, especially early ones, are about getting your work in. There will be interest in how Billingsley recovers from his start -- will his leg give him trouble, or has he fully recovered? However, the most pressure will be on Chad once the season starts. He's the ace of the staff, without question.
In 2008, Billingsley certainly pitched like an ace. However, the title of ace fell upon Derek Lowe, who was also excellent. In 2009, will the pressure of the title phase the 24-year old Billingsley, or will he continue to perform as his usual outstanding self? In 68 career starts, Billingsley is 30-19 (a .612 winning percentage) with a 3.26 ERA (roughly a 135 ERA+). Over his career (2006-2008), Billingsley has the 6th best ERA+ in baseball (minimum 400 IP), better than such stars as Cole Hamels, Jake Peavy, and Josh Beckett.
There are certainly concerns, as there always are with young pitchers. Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus is skeptical of future success for Billingsley, and summed up his reasoning thusly:
For the record, I have nothing against Billingsley. I know that there are people that think I do, because when I talk about him, I seldom have anything positive to say. I don't like his build, his motion, or his workload... but his results? Those are pretty good. Billingsley has never really been hurt, so his freakish broken leg will be something of a test. He has healed up right on schedule, and while he still has to get over the mental hurdle, the leg is sound enough that he's ready to pitch.
Billingsley also significantly increased his workload in 2008, pitching 200.2 IP, an increase of 53.2 IP over 2007. There is the "Verducci Effect," pointing out the injury risks of young pitchers (25 and under) increasing their workload by 30 innings or more in one season, named after Sports Illustrated scribe Tom Verducci. However, if you look at the last four years, the gradual increase doesn't seem that dramatic:
Perhaps a few more starts earlier in 2007 would have had a better long-term effect rather than just waiting until June to give Chad the reigns.
With all of the risks, Billingsley's performance to date has been excellent. He just needs to continue on that same path in order for the Dodgers to be successful in 2009. As important and needed as Manny Ramirez may be to the club, Billingsley might be the most indespensible Dodger.
The stage is yours, Chad. The fate of the free world -- or perhaps simply the NL West -- is in your hands. No pressure.