Has Chad Billingsley Turned Things Around?

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 11: Chad Billingsley #58 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium on April 11, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

I wrote about Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley in my Roto Roundup piece on Thursday morning after he won his second game of the season, holding the Pirates to one run in 6 innings of working, giving up 5 hits, NO walks and 4 strikeouts. I emphasize the no walks because walks have been Billingsley's downfall since he made it to the big leagues. Here are his BB/9 rates since his call up back in 2006:

2006: 5.80

2007: 3.92

2008: 3.59

2009: 3.94

2010: 3.24

2011: 4.02

Yeah, so he is prone to walk a few guys every now and then. But this year, he has walked just one batter in his 14.1 innings pitched, and has struck out 15, including 11 Padres in his first start of the season. I know it's only two starts, and the two starts have been vs the Padres and Pirates, but I wrote him off before the season. Yes, I had drafted him in at least one league in each of the last 3-4 years, but since his breakout 2008 season, he has been a disappointment. So disappointing that some were calling for the Dodgers to deal him, including me. But what team would want a starter who appears to have regressed in the last 2-3 years?

But something very simple may have turned things around for Billingsley this season. More on that after the jump:

Billingsley has the stuff to be a #2 starter in LA, but sometimes the stuff only gets you so far. In the minors, pitchers can get away with throwing the fastball by hitters, but not in the major leagues. Hitters eventually catch up to you, and you can't get away with walking 4 batters every 9 innings. I have watched too many starts by Billingsley where he cruises for the first 4-5 innings, and then the skies open up and he can't get through the next inning without giving up 4-5 runs.

In the past, Dodgers manager Don Mattingley has not minced words when discussing what Billingsley needs to do to get to reach his potential. It appears that Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt has found something in his mechanics and it has made a difference. More on this from MLB.com:

After a rocky Spring Training, Billingsley has suddenly found his All-Star form.

"Honey [pitching coach Rick Honeycutt] made it real simple in the bullpen warming up in San Diego," said catcher A.J. Ellis. "He gave Chad one simple thought, and it took off from there.

"He told him to just drive with his lower half through the target and forget everything else. It's up to Chad to repeat the mechanics, and he did tonight. His fastball command was exactly like San Diego -- both sides, elevate when needed, mix in the off-speeds. I saw pretty much the same pitcher. It was great."

Now, I am fully aware that 2 starts is a very small sample size, but according to the Pitchfx Pitch Type data over at FanGraphs, Billingsley is throwing more cut fastballs and more change ups this season. Here are the percentage of cut fastballs and change ups thrown over his career(cut fastballs/changeups):

2007: 6.3%/2.1%

2008: 7.2%/2.4%

2009: 21..0%/0.9%

2010: 30.4%/1.3%

2011: 25.7%/6.1%

2012: 33.2%/9.8%

The increase in his use of the cut fastball and change up has resulted in a big jump in his swinging strike rate from 7.6% last season to 13.0% in the young 2012 season. And as stated before, his walk rate has dropped dramatically.

At this early stage in the season, it appears that the change in the mix of pitch types has lead to better performance by Billingsley. Now whether he can sustain his improved performance is another story. We will learn more when Billingsley faces the Brewers in Milwaukee next Tuesday, but I will be focusing on the walks and how he pitches with men on base, which have been his downfall in the past.

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