Billingsley learning to let go
Dodgers pitcher tries to answer questions created by late-season swoon
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There was a time when Dodgers officials talked about Chad Billingsley in declarative sentences, sentences that often escalated into hyperbole. There was a time when club officials had the luxury of talking about him that way because they were mostly talking about his future, and talking about a young pitcher's future is almost always more exciting than talking about his present.
Now, four years into a major league career that has appeared at times to be blossoming and at others to be stalling, they mostly just talk about him in questions.
Questions like, who is the real Chad Billingsley? He won 40 games over the past three seasons and stormed into last year's All-Star Game by winning nine games and posting a 3.38 ERA in the first half. But he also fell into a second-half swoon that seemed to get worse the more he tried to fight it before he finished with a 12-11 record and spent the postseason in the bullpen.
Questions like, what is Billingsley's true makeup? He seemed afraid to retaliate in an infamous start in the National League Championship Series two years ago when one Dodgers hitter after another was getting knocked down by Philadelphia's Brett Myers. But he also, in his best outing of 2009, stood in defiance of that menacing left-field wall at Minute Maid Park and shut out the Houston Astros for 7 1/3 innings.
Questions like, can this kid handle adversity without driving himself completely bonkers?
"You try so many different things [to get out of a slump]," Billingsley said a few days ago, when asked about his second-half struggles last season. "It might be something as simple as tying your shoes differently. Just anything to break the trend."
In truth, it wasn't really that bad for Billingsley. Frustrating, yes. But was he on the verge of insanity? Well, no.
Billingsley's biggest problem, the one that has plagued him at various times since he reached the majors in 2006 and the one that probably is the biggest reason he hasn't fully morphed into the staff ace he was projected to be, is that he appears to have trouble letting go of his mistakes.
"There were times in the middle of a game -- and it might not have just been when a guy drove in a run, but maybe it was a guy leading off an inning with a double, something like that -- where I would think maybe I should have used a different pitch selection," Billingsley said. "Then maybe you try to overthrow or try to do too much. That's the mental part of it. But the only way to get better is by doing it, by being out there on the mound. You can't simulate it in the bullpen or by throwing batting practice. You have to be out there facing hitters in a game situation.
"You can't dwell on it. Sometimes, you throw your best pitch and a guy gets a hit and drives in a run. You can't do anything about that now. You just have to bear down and go after the next guy."
Billingsley's struggles putting that into practice are similar to almost every other pitcher, or hitter for that matter, who has played the game at this level.
"We all want to be perfect," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said.
And when a pitcher who wants to be perfect isn't, the trick is for him to shrug off the fact he isn't perfect and find a way to still be pretty good.
"When things are going well, the game just kind of happens," Honeycutt said. "If you give up a couple of runs, it's like, 'OK, I gave up a couple of runs, but now I'll just hold them right here.' But when things aren't going well, your thought process is a little bit different, where all of a sudden something can take you out of your rhythm. Now, you're thinking that you have hit a bump and you don't know how long it's going to take to get back to where you were."
By the time he reached the majors, Billingsley already had learned all the obligatory ballplayer clichés, especially that one about only worrying about what you can control. But what many ballplayers have trouble with is that they overestimate how many things they can control. Like how many wins they have, a sometimes-misleading statistic that is often completely beyond a pitcher's control.
"You can go out there and have an absolutely horrible game, maybe a 'C' game as far as your stuff, and still win the ballgame," Billingsley said. "Or, you can have your 'A' stuff and lose a ballgame. But all in all, in the end, the only result I want is the win."
Billingsley, like every big league pitcher, knows in his head he will never be perfect. But like every big league pitcher, he still wishes in his heart that he could be. It is learning how to not be perfect that usually represents a key moment in the career of a top-notch starting pitcher, and although Opening Day remains five weeks away, Billingsley at least sounds now like a guy who is learning that lesson.
The biggest part of that lesson is developing the ability to let go of mistakes -- not just forgetting about a bad start before making the next one five days later, but forgetting about a bad pitch before throwing the next one 30 seconds later.
"You really try to work on coming in with a consistent frame of mind day in and day out," said Honeycutt, describing the zen-like mental state that all pitchers strive for but that almost none of them ever achieve. "Probably the best person at doing that that I have ever been around was Fernando [Valenzuela]. He had grown up with his entire family living in a one-room house or something like that. That was real pressure, so by the time he got to the major leagues, he didn't feel any pressure.
"Every day, you couldn't tell whether he had thrown a shutout or given up five runs in three innings. He was the same guy all the time."
Although he was an All-Star for the first time in his career in 2009, Billingsley now says he started to feel a little off in his mechanics in his final couple of starts before the break. His problems were compounded in early August when a slight hamstring strain caused him to miss a start and, he now says, might have continued to play havoc with his delivery when he returned.
"All you can do is try to work on it and correct it and get that comfortable feeling back," Billingsley said.
Most pitchers will tell you that they instantly know when their mechanics are out of whack, something that comes by feel. The hard part is getting those mechanics back in order. But the primary challenge for a major league pitcher is to figure out how to pitch well when not every little thing feels exactly the way it is supposed to.
If he is ever to truly be considered a staff ace in the way Valenzuela was for so many years, Billingsley must achieve some semblance of an even keel emotionally. All indications are he is getting there, as evidenced by the fact he did finish the regular season with two solid, six-inning starts against Washington and San Diego in which he now says he felt great on the mound.
"I haven't been around this league that long at all, and by no means have I figured it all out or know the answer to it," Billingsley said. "When I was younger, if I had runners on base in a key situation, I would always think I needed to throw the ball by the [hitter] and try to strike him out. But there aren't a lot of guys who can do that in this game.
"Now, if it's the second or third inning and the bases are loaded, maybe I'm trying to get a ground ball double play and get two outs to limit the damage. You know the times when you need to push it and the times when you might trade a run for an out. You also have to know the hitter. If you're facing a slap hitter, you're probably not going to strike him out."
Billingsley grasps these lessons easily enough. But Dodgers officials won't have their questions answered for a few more weeks, when they get the chance to see whether he can actually put those lessons into practice in the heat of a major league game.
If he can do that, he has the potential to be a true, front-of-the-rotation ace.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter or send him a question for his next mailbag.