When Chad Billingsley takes the mound on Monday against the New York Mets, casual Mets fans might expect their offense to tee off on him, seeing as Billingsley currently sports a 5.20 ERA this season. However, Billingsley has been a much better pitcher than his ERA suggests.
The first thing that jumps out about Billingsley is his high strikeout rate: through just 27 innings this year, Billingsley has struck out 40 batters. Batters have only made contact with Billingsley’s pitches 67% of the time when they have swung. For comparison’s sake, against Johan Santana last season batters made contact 72% of the time when they swung (they made contact 76% of the time against Jake Peavy last year).
Billingsley’s problem is his inability to throw strikes. He has walked 17 hitters this season, and only 59% of his pitches have been strikes. Billingsley’s control problems have been a constant theme throughout his career – both in the big leagues and in the minors. Last season, Billingsley walked 64 hitters in 147 innings. In the minor leagues, Billinglsey has walked 3.73 hitters per nine (although he has struck out 10.22 batters per nine in the minors as well).
This season, however, Billingsley’s 5.20 can be attributed less to his high walk total and more to his high BABIP. After posting .308 and .290 BABIPs in his first two major league seasons, Billingsley’s BABIP this season is an astronomical .368. Despite his high BABIP, Billingsley is not being hit particularly hard this season: his line-drive % is only 17.3% (it was 20.1% last year and 15.8% in 2006).
Additionally, Billingsley has given up a disproportionate amount of his hits this season with runners on base, meaning he has given up more runs than he “should” have, given the amount of baserunners he has allowed. With no one on base, opposing hitters are batting .203/.288/.288; while with runners on base, opposing hitters are batting .319/.438/.489. Last year, however, Billingsley did not have problems like this: last season, with no one on base, opposing batters hit .252/.320/.398, while with runners on base they hit .223/.314/.349.
Billingsley is giving up more baserunners than he should this season, due to his abnormally high BABIP. He is also seeing far more of these baserunners come around to score, due to a disproportionate amount of hits coming with runners on base. Both of these factors suggest that Billingsley’s ERA should be much, much lower than it is.
You may be thinking that Billingsley’s control problems are contributing to his high BABIP this season. After all, even though Billingsley is throwing only 59% of his pitches for strikes, he’s only throwing 52% of his first pitches for strikes. Thus, Billingsley is behind nearly half of the hitters he faces, and perhaps this allows batters to have a higher BABIP. However, Billingsley’s LD% suggests that this is not so: if batters were indeed getting better pitches to hit because Billingsley was so often behind in the count, Billingsley would almost certainly sport a higher LD%, indicative of batters more often making better contact.
While Billingsley’s high walk rate is a problem, his incredibly high strikeout rate somewhat offsets this. Billingsley’s BABIP and opposing hitters’ batting line when runners are on base should both regress to the mean; when they do, fans will see that Chad Billingsley is one of the ten best pitchers in the National League.