Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dodgers' starter Chad Billingsley needs to trust his fastball

As the old adage goes, the fastball is the best pitch in baseball. There's a reason for that. Without a good fastball, the secondary stuff doesn't matter.

Now, a good fastball doesn't have to be 95 MPH-plus, but it has to be consistent and located well.

This is where we come to Chad Billingsley.

The Dodgers' starter was a top prospect ever since he was drafted with the 24th pick of the 2003 MLB Draft. He was once viewed as the future ace of the staff. However, his struggles (which haven't been as bad as advertised) and the emergence of Clayton Kershaw have negated the need for an ace.

But there's no excuse for Billingsley to be anything worse than a great No. 3 starter or solid No. 2 starter. He's too talented to be anything less. Not trusting his fastball is holding him back from success.

Billingsley debuted in 2006 for the Dodgers as a fresh-faced 21-year-old. He struggled a bit, as one would expect a guy who began his career so young to do. His 3.80 ERA was nice, but his WHIP (1.67), BB/9 (5.8) and K/BB (1.02) were not. Still, it wasn't a bad debut for the youngster.

His 2007 season began with him pitching out of the bullpen. It seemed the Dodgers were going to bring him along slowly after being aggressive with him in the minors. By the end of the season, he was the Dodgers' No. 4 starter behind Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Randy Wolf.

The 2008 season was arguably his best in the majors. He went 200 2/3 innings, posting a 16-10 record, a 3.14 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 3.6 BB/9, 9.0 K/9 and a 2.51 K/BB. It looked like at the age of 23, he was putting it all together. He regressed in 2009, came back strong in 2010 before regressing again last season.

But let's go back to 2008. In that year, he threw his four-seam fastball 59.2 percent of the time. That was down from his first two seasons in the majors, but it's expected for a kid to stick to his fastball. And pitching out of the bullpen definitely meant he needed to throw more fastballs.

Here's a breakdown of his pitch type that season (info courtesy of FanGraphs):

Velocity is not a problem for Billingsley, as he's been consistent with it across all his pitches his entire career. But the fact he does not trust his fastball is problematic.

In 2009, he threw it 49.6 percent of the time. The best pitchers in baseball (and I'm not saying he is) don't throw their fastballs less than 50 percent of the time.

Take a look at Matt Cain of the Giants. I bring him up because Billingsley has been long since linked to Cain since he was taken one year before Billingsley, had similar stuff and followed a similar path to the majors.

For his career, Cain throws his fastball 63.9 percent of the time. While it has a little more giddy-up than Billingsley's, it shows he trusts it. Cain's changeup is among the best in baseball, yet he throws it just 11.3 percent of the time. He's thrown it more and more every season. To no surprise, he's gotten better every year he's been in the game.

But it all comes back to the fastball. Without trust in the pitch, it's hard for a pitcher to succeed.

While FanGraphs rates it as a negative pitch in terms of value, it's still the most important pitch for Billingsley's success. Without a good, consistent fastball, his cutter doesn't matter; his curveball doesn't matter and his changeup doesn't matter.

Part of trusting his fastball is also locating it well. Billingsley has pitched a lot more to contact the last three seasons, as evidenced by his declining K/9 rate. He had a career-high 9.0 K/9 in 2008. He's posted an 8.2, 8.0 and 7.3 K/9 in the last three seasons. Subsequently, his H/9 has increased in each of the last three seasons (7.9 to 8.3 to 9.0).

I'm perfectly OK with Bilingsley not striking out as many hitters because he still has the ability to get a strikeout when he needs to. If he locates his fastball better (comes with using it more), he's going to pitch deeper into games.

He has the frame to be a workhorse, yet he's thrown more than 200 innings just once in his career (previously mentioned). He's better than 194 innings per season as a starter.

Billingsley just wasn't a good pitcher last season. He was mediocre all-around. It's time for him to pitch up to his abilities. And it has nothing to do with his toughness, guts or ability to pitch in big games.

Billingsley said he's working on his leg kick to have a more consistent delivery. Consistency is everything when it comes to pitching. If a guy is not consistent, he's going to struggle -- be it the wind-up, the follow-through or the release point (or some combination of the three).

With the loss of Hiroki Kuroda, the Dodgers adding two mediocre veterans to the rotation and a bevy of great starters set to hit the free agent market this winter, this is Billingsley's best -- and possibly last -- chance to make an impression on the organization and stake his claim to a rotation spot, despite signing a lucrative contract extension before last season.

If he falters this season or is just a middle-of-the-road guy, he could be shipped out to make room for the aforementioned Cain, Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke.

Photo credit: SD Dirk on Flickr

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