What’s Wrong With Chad Billingsley?

While Dylan Hernandez tweeted yesterday that Chad Billingsley will remain in the rotation, just the fact that it was even a question worth asking shows where the attitudes of journalists, fans, and bloggers currently lie.

Since last year, there has been rampant speculation that Billingsley was either injured or losing his raw stuff, but those assumptions seem rather premature.  The fact of the matter is that Billingsley’s velocity hasn’t fallen off by any significant margin from the past couple years, and if anything, his off-speed stuff is showing more break, not less.

So What’s Going On Then?

For starters, i’m completely puzzled by the pitch selection.

Are the Dodgers even aware of this trend?  Because it seems silly to me.  Almost half of the pitches thrown by Billingsley are now some variation of his cutter/slider hybrid, and since his first name is not Mariano, and his last name is not Rivera, I find the pitch selection a bit ridiculous.

Furthermore, I would be remissed if I failed to mention that Billingsley hardly ever throws a four seam fastball anymore.  Sure, he seems to now rely on a pitch that is classified as a two seam fastball, but i’m not totally sure if that is an actual switch or not.

That brings me to my next point:  Billingsley’s fastball doesn’t move as much as it used to.  The vertical movement (in inches) from the first half of 2009 was 9.98, but in the second half, it was down to 8.97.  Now?  6.91.  The horizontal movement (in inches) went from -4.84 in the first half of 2009 to -3.66 in the second half to -2.74 this year.  Now I would normally say it’s a potential sample size issue, but looking at each individual game in 2010, it’s the trend in every start.

What it means is that Billingsley is throwing his fastball with less rotation, thus causing less “lift”, and his fastball doesn’t have as much arm side tail as it did before.  For those non-math majors out there, that’s three inches of “lift” and two inches of tail that are now gone from his fastball.  Rather than an injury or a raw stuff problem, I think this issue calls into question Billingsley’s mechanics, or more specifically, his release point.

When comparing the release points of the first and second half of 2009, it’s abundantly clear that Billingsley was far more erratic in the second half than the first.  There’s a much wider cluster of points in the second half chart, which certainly gives credibility to the claim that he was struggling mechanically down the stretch.

As far as this year goes, Billingsley’s release point seems relatively stable, but that’s not necessarily a good thing if he’s simply repeating a negative over and over again.

So What About The Mechanics?

*Two Images Used To Be Here*

On the left is Billingsley in an April start from last year.  On the right is Billingsley from yesterday’s start.

An obvious difference that should immediately pop out at you is the higher leg kick on the left.  In early 2009, Billingsley stood tall throughout his motion, but yesterday he was almost crouching over in his motion.  The fact that he used to stay upright for much longer seems to have affected the way in which he approaches his release.  Since being more upright leads to his front shoulder being higher and his left knee not bending as much, Billingsley’s motion used to take a more downhill plane.  I don’t know if you guys can see it, but Billingsley seemed to be “pushing” the ball towards the plate yesterday instead of “reaching out” towards his target like he was early last year.

Another thing is that his tempo is now faster.  In the left picture, there are two more frames (0.1 seconds) during the leg lift phase, and then another two frames between the top of his leg lift and the point at which Billingsley begins to take the ball out of his glove.  I tried to synchronize it as best I could, but you can still see the difference if you look closely.  Anyway, the faster tempo of the current Billingsley isn’t a bad thing in itself, but since there’s a clear difference in balance point at the end of the motion, I think the faster tempo represents him rushing his mechanics, which could lead to all sorts of problems.

The good news?  Almost everything else is exactly the same.  There’s frame by frame and inch by inch similarity in Billingsley’s arm circle, arm position, and follow through, so it really seems to all stem from no longer standing tall throughout his motion.  It’s not the height of the leg kick that is important, it’s the fact that his front side isn’t as aggressive toward the plate that messes things up.

As an aside, I assure you I didn’t make the pictures with the intention of finding flaws.  In fact, it was quite the opposite, as my original hypothesis was that Billingsley’s current mechanics were similar to last year.  I couldn’t deny what I saw though.

So What Are The Options?

Trade Him

This obviously depends on what the Dodgers could get for him, but given the current state of his value, it’s probably unwise to shop Billingsley at this stage.  I doubt the Dodgers would get anything better than him in return, so I fail to see the point of this option.  After all, the Dodgers need more pitching, not less.

Designate Him

This isn’t feasible, simply because he would never clear waivers.  You might think he’s trash now, but to other teams, getting Billingsley would be an absolute bargain.

Bullpen Banishment

This is an option, but I’m not sure what it would accomplish.  Perhaps it would make more sense if the Dodgers had a viable starter just waiting to get a chance, then Billingsley could go slowly work on his mechanics in the bullpen, but even if he has to work his struggles out on the mound, it’s likely that Billingsley is better than any alternative option.

So What Should They Do With Him Then?

Honestly?  Either skip a start to work with him on mechanics or do nothing and let him work through it.

If his struggles continue, then a move will eventually have to be made, but for now, Billingsley has only had three 2010 starts, and there are other great pitchers who are struggling just as bad, so patience might be the most prudent response here.  Though I must admit that my patience nowadays is not so much a reflection of my unwavering confidence in Billingsley, but rather because the Dodgers simply don’t have anything better.

About Chad Moriyama