If the ESPN 500 were based on pedigree and potential, Chad Billingsley (No. 173) wouldn’t have three digits next to his name. A first-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003, Billingsley made his lone All-Star appearance in 2009, and has posted ERAs above four in two of the last three seasons.
He endured his worst statistical season last year. His 2011 ERA, WHIP, walk rate, strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio were each his worst since becoming a full-time starter in 2008.
What went wrong for Billingsley, causing this once-hyped prospect to be ranked No. 173 among baseball’s 500 best players?
Billingsley struck out nearly one-quarter of the batters he faced in 2008 -- a rate that put him among the 10 best starters -- but that number fell in each of the last three seasons and last year was at just 18 percent, on par with the average major-leaguer.
A diminished slider appears to be one of the key factors related to his declining strikeout rate. His strikeouts with the pitch were cut in half over the last two seasons and the number of swings-and-misses on the pitch also fell by nearly 50 percent.
Chad Billingsley's Slider
Last 2 Seasons
His inability to find the strike zone with his slider really hurt him last year. In 2010, Billingsley effectively located the pitch near the edge of the strike zone, netting him called strikes on more than one-quarter of his pitches taken by the batter.
He threw his slider for strikes two-thirds of the time two seasons ago, slightly above the major-league average of 63 percent. But last year that rate plummeted to 55 percent, and fewer than one in six sliders taken were called strikes.
Batters adjusted to Billingsley’s lack of command last year and sat on the pitch, waiting for a hanging slider in their wheelhouse to send out of the park. Billingsley yielded three home runs off sliders in 2011 after allowing none in 2010.
A perfect example of this came Aug. 10 against the Philadelphia Phillies. Billingsley threw nine sliders that day, but just two found the strike zone. One of those that did proved to be costly, igniting a Phillies rally from six runs down in a game that ended in a 9-8 defeat for the Dodgers.
In the fourth inning, with the Dodgers leading 6-0 and a man on first, Hunter Pence sent a 2-2 slider thrown over the middle of the plate 434 feet over the center field wall. Just two pitches earlier, Pence had laid off a two-strike slider that wasn’t close to the plate.
In 2012, Billingsley will enter the first year of a 3-year, $35 million contract signed last spring. Despite Billingsley’s mediocre 2011, there is optimism in Dodgers camp that he is poised for a breakout year.
According to a late February report on the Dodgers blog at ESPNLA.com, Billingsley is working on a change in his mechanics this spring to become more consistent in his delivery.
If this mechanical adjustment is real and yields the results that Billingsley and Dodgers fans hope for, he could find himself much higher on the ESPN 500 list come next year.