ANAHEIM -- There are only so many things in this world with near-perfect reliability.
Start with the easy stuff. Sunrises in the east, sunsets in the west. Death and taxes. From there, move on to a yearly slew of Emmys for “Mad Men,” and rush-hour traffic on the 5 Freeway.
The Dodgers have their own clockwork ritual. Every fifth day Don Mattingly will sit down with the media before a game, trying to explain exactly what is going on with Chad Billingsley. “Every time he pitches,” Mattingly said ahead of Friday’s 8-5 loss to the Angels, “I asked him the other day, 'Bills, do you ever get tired of answering the questions? Because I’m getting tired of answering about you every time.' He was just kinda like, 'That’s the way it is.' ”
And it is. In 2008, Billingsley went 16-10 with a 3.14 ERA, striking out 201 batters in 200.2 innings pitched. It was his first season as a full-time starter, and given his tender age (23), the hope was Billingsley would develop into a solid front-of-the-rotation starter, perhaps even a dominant one.
He made the All-Star team in 2009, but after the break was only 3-7 and his ERA swelled to 5.02. Call it the start of a downward trend. Not always linear, but without question heading in the wrong direction.
The relentless questioning of the guy, at least in theory supposed to be his No. 2 starter, prompted Mattingly to do a little research.
“When we started looking at Bills over time, it’s pretty damn good. It may not be what we think it should be or think it could be, but still pretty damn good. Go into it and look at it the last four years. I think he’s in the top 10 in wins. He’s probably in the top 10 for innings pitched, he’s in the top 10 (in) strikeouts,” Mattingly said before the game. “At the end of the day, look up his numbers and really go into the last four seasons, and put him up against the whole league. Even though he may not be a 20-game winner or whatever, it’s not that bad.”
(For the record, via ESPN Stats and Information, since 2009 Billingsley’s 39 wins tie him for 17th in the National League. His 577 striekouts are good for 8th, and he’s 11th in innings pitched with 657.2. League wide, he’s ranked 39th, 23rd, and 32nd respectively.)
“It’s not that bad” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but it reflects the cloud surrounding Billingsley since the second half of ’08. Quite often, he’s very good. Too often, he’s not, a dichotomy captured well this year. Billingsley ripped off four high quality starts in five tries kicking off the season, but by the end of May the tidy 2.64 ERA he sported heading in had swelled to 4.09. Not once in six starts did he make it through the sixth inning, yet four times he threw 95 pitches or more.
This month, he opened with two earned runs over his first 14 innings before a shaky outing last week against the White Sox.
Friday, staked to a rare five-run lead, Billingsley started playing with fire with all the enthusiasm of a circus performer but none of the expertise. After erasing a single from Torii Hunter in the first by inducing Albert Pujols into a double play, it was all downhill. Three straight hits to start the second followed by a sacrifice fly and a groundout put three on the board for the Angels, and in the fourth they added three more hits for three more runs. Only a spectacular catch from Andre Ethier ending the fifth prevented two more Angels runs.
His final line: 10 hits in five innings, and six earned runs.
Billingsley -- never seemingly all that comfortable with the media -- dutifully stood in front of his locker following the game answering questions, talking about the misguided third inning first-pitch slider Mike Trout deposited over the wall in left, putting the Halos up 6-5, and how he plans to keep plugging along.
“I feel good out there,” he said. “Balls were finding holes, and you can’t do anything about it. It’s just baseball. I’m going to continue to go out there every fifth day and pitch my game.”
For his part, Mattingly said he’d have to review the film before knowing for sure whether Billingsley was bad, unlucky, or some combination of both. Either way, the Dodgers are certainly no closer to knowing, more or less, what Billingsley will provide each time he steps on the mound. It’s no small consideration for a team that will never be able to rely on its offense to reach and then succeed in the postseason.
The Dodgers might be able to succeed without solid, consistent performances from Billingsley, but it gets a lot harder.
Certainly Mattingly gets it, sitting at his desk after the game.
“That’s why you guys ask me all these questions,” he said.