GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There is a strange irony to being a major league pitcher. On the one hand, you are striving for consistency. On the other hand, you are constantly tinkering with your delivery in an effort to get it just right.
It is along those lines that Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley is attempting a change to his mechanics this spring. It is a small thing, really, but the hope is that over time, it will make a big difference in Billingsley's results.Christian Petersen/Getty Images
“I’m just working hard at smoothing out my leg kick,” Billingsley says. “When my foot gets out away from my body like that, my timing has to be just right.”
After throwing his second bullpen session of spring training last week, Billingsley spent several minutes talking with Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who at one point could be observed manually adjusting Billingsley’s front foot in midair while Billingsley stood frozen at the apex of his delivery.
This is what spring training is for, obviously, to iron out little things. But this is a fairly big change for Billingsley, who is trying to stop kicking his front leg out during his delivery -- which often results in his body getting ahead of his arm and sometimes allows gravity and momentum to affect his motion -- and start keeping that leg underneath his body.
“I don't know if it's major,” Billingsley said. “I’m just working hard at smoothing out my leg kick. When my foot gets out away from my body like that, my timing has to be just right. If it's not, then I start drifting toward the third-base side and stepping across my body when I deliver the pitch.”
And that results in the pitch being off line, maybe no more than an inch or so -- but in the big leagues, that can be the difference in a game. Billingsley is hoping this adjustment will allow him to stay on line more often, giving him a little more margin for error with the rest of his delivery because his timing will be right and his momentum won't cause him to fall off to one side of the mound.
“You can’t be perfect all the time, even though that is what you strive for,” Billingsley said. “There are going to be times when I’m still going to be too quick (with his body). But this should allow me to be more consistent.”
The decision was made by Billingsley and Honeycutt toward the end of last season to try this change, but because it was during the season, it wasn't a good time to start experimenting. Instead, Billingsley began working on it during the offseason, when he was throwing on his own, and Honeycutt got his first look at it last week when Billingsley got to camp and began throwing formal bullpen sessions.
“It’s still something, obviously, where each session is a little bit better,” Honeycutt said. “Chad is a perfectionist. He wants everything to be perfect, and that just isn't the way it is right now. (But) he threw a lot of ‘pens before he got here, and now that he's here, we'll continue to work with him.”
Billingsley said the old delivery actually worked better for him in one way because it sometimes caused his fastball to cut as it reached the plate. But he also said it turned his curveball into something “more like a slurve.” Only time will tell, he said, if the fastball loses movement because of this adjustment, but he didn't seem concerned about it.
How far Billingsley’s revamped motion will carry him remains to be seen. But if he can take a major step forward this season -- something the Dodgers have been waiting for the former first-round draft pick to do, basically, since the day he arrived in the majors almost six years ago -- it would go a long way toward shoring up the starting rotation following the loss of Hiroki Kuroda to free agency this winter.
The Dodgers already have added two veterans in Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang to a rotation that includes reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and lefty Ted Lilly. But if Billingsley can improve dramatically -- he is a disappointing 26-29 with a 4.09 ERA in 2 1/2 seasons since making his first and only All-Star team in 2009 -- it would give the Dodgers a rock-solid starting five and, probably, finally alleviate the long-held perception that Billingsley never has quite lived up to expectations.
Billingsley is only now entering the three-year, $35-million contract he signed at the end of spring training last year. Based on what he has accomplished in recent years, that might sound like an inflated figure. But if this mechanical adjustment takes hold and renders the results Billingsley and Honeycutt hope it will, that contract could begin to seem like a bargain.