The Situation: The NL West was surprisingly competitive last year as it was the only division in which three different teams won 88 games.
And thanks to the presence of PETCO Park, AT&T Park, and Dodger Stadium, pitching remains king in the division. The Giants won 88 games despite having only one above-average hitter in their lineup, Pablo Sandoval(notes), thanks to their one-two punch of Tim Lincecum(notes) and Matt Cain(notes). The Dodgers won 93 games because they had a stronger lineup to pair with a rotation that rivaled the Giants' — the two teams tied for second in the majors with a 3.58 starters' ERA.
But the Dodgers' top two have some red flags as they enter 2010. Clayton Kershaw(notes), who turned 22 four days ago, had the fifth-best ERA in the National League, but Dave Cameron warns that he could already be on the decline. Meanwhile, Chad Billingsley(notes) has been their most dependable starter since 2006, but he showed serious signs of tiring last year. He had a second-half ERA of 5.20 last and his stumble to the finish that was a big reason why the Dodgers took him out of their playoff rotation and nearly off their roster. He didn't pitch in the NLDS against the Cardinals and made just had one appearance of long relief in the NLCS.
Billingsley could be the key to the Dodgers' season. If he's the guy who had a 3.34 ERA through his first 87 big league starts, it'll be hard to unseat the Dodgers from atop the NL West. But if he's the pitcher who was so unreliable down the stretch the Dodgers couldn't give him a single playoff start, their playoff hopes will falter with him.
The Question: Can Chad Billingsley still be a top starter in the National League?
The Analysis: To answer the question of whether he'll bounce back, we first have to understand why he stumbled. Chad Billingsley has been a top prospect ever since high school —when the Dodgers took him in the first round of the 2003 draft — and he made it to the majors without missing a beat. He started in rookie ball in 2003, High-A in 2004, AA in 2005, AAA in 2006, which led to a midseason callup. His high strikeout numbers and phenom status guaranteed his promotion, but his walks were always relatively high. That didn't prevent his success in his first three years, but when he struggled last year, his control problems made for a good first place to start looking.
Billingsley strikes out a lot of people and doesn't give up a whole lot of homers, but he's walked 80 people and thrown double-digit wild pitches more than two years in a row, which puts increased strain on the defense. Unsurprisingly, his BABIP increased during the second half last year, as he gave up more runs. His career strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2.01, which is one of the worst marks for any elite pitcher in baseball. It isn't quite the worst, however — he's just slightly behind the Giants' Matt Cain (2.09 K/BB), but comfortably ahead of the Braves' Jair Jurrjens(notes) (1.95 K/BB). It's hard to succeed with a K/BB that low, but perhaps not impossible.
As for speed, his fastball velocity is nearly unchanged. His average second-half fastball was just about as quick as his average first-half fastball, which was equal to his career average, 91.7 miles per hour. (That's quite good, actually: his 91.8 mph average fastball in 2009 was the 16th-best mark in the NL.) That's a good thing for Billingsley, because slipping velocity might be an ominous sign of arm fatigue.
On the other hand, he was out for more than a week with a hamstring injury in mid-August. It was his first serious injury since a 2006 oblique injury. The hamstring is perhaps the most compelling explanation, especially because his performance in September was so much worse than his performance in August. As ESPN's Tony Jackson writes, he now admits that the hamstring "might have continued to play havoc with his delivery when he returned." This is actually good news because it might mean he's the same pitcher as always, and now that his legs are feeling good again, there's no reason he can't go back to being the same dominant pitcher he's been since high school.
The Forecast for 2010: The main projection systems are skeptical of what I just said. Instead picking a midpoint between his established level of success from 2006-2008 and his off year in 2009. Bill James and CHONE project him with something like a 12-9 record, a 3.70 ERA, and about 170 strikeouts in 180 innings or so. ZiPS is an outlier, though, and I think they're closer to the mark. They're projecting a 15-9 record, and a 3.34 ERA in nearly 200 innings. Those are top-of-the-rotation numbers, and, barring injury, I think that's the kind of pitcher he will continue to be.
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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington
• How long can Derek Jeter defy the effects of aging?
• Who will be the brightest offensive star in the O's universe?
• What's next for Ryan Zimmerman?
• Can Pablo Sandoval improve on his impressive 2009?
• Will anyone hit 50 home runs in 2010?
- Chad Billingsley
- The Dodgers