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February 12, 2009

LA Story

Dodgers Rot... ation Woes?

by Will Carroll

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Team Audit | DT Cards | PECOTA Cards | Depth Chart

While Dodgers fans obsess about Manny Ramirez and leaving Vero Beach, the team that shows up in Arizona is going to be relying on names like Eric Stults and Claudio Vargas while trying to make another playoff run. Sure, Manny Ramirez would help the offense of any team, but the Dodgers right now-the team of Koufax, Drysdale, Fernando, and Hershiser-is facing a crisis on its pitching staff. Each season at Baseball Prospectus, I do Team Health Reports for all 30 MLB squads using a system that uses twelve factors to help predict the risk of injury. I assign a red, yellow, or green flag to each player. Red, naturally, is the riskiest. The bad news in this LA story? It looks like the team has swapped from Dodgers blue to Dodgers red.

Each team has 162 games to pencil in a starter, easy enough to do if you have a five-man rotation that has five guys who can be counted on for thirty or so starts. Unfortunately, baseball seldom works that way. In 2008, the average NL team used 10.5 starters, meaning that it's not five guys a team ends up depending on, it's nine or ten starters (or more) that have to be available. 'Available' can mean somebody at Triple-A, or it can be someone you've stashed in the bullpen, but the last thing a team can afford is their general manager having to make desperation calls immediately after he (inevitably) has to put a starter on the DL.

Even with the recent signing of Randy Wolf, the Dodgers begin the season with questions starting at the top, barely making it to five solid options, let alone nine or ten. With three red lights and two yellow ones assigned to their five expected starters, the Dodgers find themselves in the same position as last year's Cleveland Indians, who had that same mix. Did that spell doom? While CC Sabathia had a nice season (to say the least), injuries to Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona helped drag down a team favored by many to contend in the AL Central. Then again, the Phillies had the same mix and got healthy seasons from Cole Hamels and Brett Myers, both graded as red, though Pat Gillick was nevertheless forced to trade for Joe Blanton to solidify things at the back end.

It's all the more noticeable for the 2009 Dodgers because of their off-season changes. After losing Derek Lowe and seeing Chad Billingsley break his leg during the winter, they head to spring training counting on too many young arms to evaluate and too many comebacks in progress, and come out with too few innings they're sure to get from their starting staff. Let's take a look at each candidate and his risks heading into spring training:

  • Randy Wolf: Yellow light Wolf was signed to solidify the rotation, but he's only a year removed from shoulder surgery, and just two years removed from a Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Maybe scar tissue is the solid Ned Colletti is looking for.
  • Chad Billingsley: Red light He broke his leg after slipping on ice, putting his conditioning in even more question than it was before. Sir Mix-A-Lot's favorite pitcher has a lot of questions to answer in spring training, and to add to the risk, a lot of miles already on his young arm.
  • Hiroki Kuroda: Yellow light Like many Japanese pitchers, Kuroda hit a wall at the end of the season. Most tend to adjust, however, and Kuroda wasn't used as heavily in Japan as most.
  • Clayton Kershaw: Red light Kershaw threw 160 innings as a 20-year-old. If he lasts the season and makes 30-plus starts, he'll push past 200 IP unless the organization places draconian limits on his workload. Find me a recent pitcher who did that at those ages and lasted.
  • Jason Schmidt: Red light The Dodgers are both penciling Schmidt into their rotation and suing their insurance company to help pay for his damaged arm. Does anyone seriously expect him to contribute?
  • Eric Stults: Yellow light I loved this guy in Some Kind of Wonderful? No? This one is a Quad-A pitcher who is precisely the kind of guy you keep in Triple-A to soak up the innings that you shouldn't push onto Kershaw.
  • Claudio Vargas: Green light Vargas has three partial seasons' worth of experience starting, but has never been able to pitch well enough to lock down the job. He'll start off in the Dodgers' pen, but with this group listed above ahead of him, you have to think that he's likely to see ten starts along the way. Good thing is, he's proven he can do that without breaking.
  • James McDonald: Yellow light The Dodgers want to ease McDonald in more than they were able to do last season with Kershaw. It's a smart plan, one that goes back to pitching coach Johnny Sain and Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver as far as a way to handle young talent effectively. Like Vargas, he'll start in the pen, but the deceptive righty is a real sleeper.

Remember, this is about probabilities and risk, not certainties. Just as no one predicted that Blake DeWitt would end up a key component of a playoff team, unlikely events happen in baseball. If the Dodgers stay healthy, the MVP of the team won't be someone in uniform, it will be Stan Conte, the team's outstanding athletic trainer.

Related Content:  Trade To Dodgers

24 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


""[i]the Dodgers start the season with questions starting at the top, barely making it to nine or ten solid options, let alone five[/i]""

Am I reading this wrong or should the nine or ten be where the five is?

And when is Billingsley supposed to start pitching? When should he be expected to pitch well? Would you expect him to be under the PECOTA weighted mean of 181 IP?

Feb 12, 2009 10:17 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

You're reading it wrong -- they have eight or nine options, but it starts getting very thin before they even get to five.

Billingsley -- we're waiting to see. With P/C reporting, we'll know soon about a lot of guys!

Feb 12, 2009 10:24 AM

I see this is on EPSN.com today, as well. I didn't realize that BP was once again working with ESPN. That's how I found y'all in the first place. Congrats on that and the BBWAA. - Denis

Feb 12, 2009 10:50 AM
rating: 0

The Dodgers also have Jeff Weaver and Eric Milton as options. Whatever that is worth.

Feb 12, 2009 11:02 AM
rating: 1

Will, I feel like you've always been very hard on Billingsley. You have commented for years that he won't make it through the season, and in fact last year insinuated that he was already injured going into spring training. I'm sure it is nothing personal, but suffice it to say, you have been badly wrong on him from the beginning.

Feb 12, 2009 11:27 AM
rating: 1

Carroll has been sniping at Billingsley for years, making one absurd statement about the fellow after another. Let's go through this step by step:

(1). Billingley's conditioning has always been excellent; nobody but Carroll has ever questioned it. People who have stood close to Billingsley when he has been in tighter-fitting civilian clothing, rather than a baggy uniform, have noted that his body is firm, his belly is completely flat, and his physique overall is very muscular. Mass doesn't mean flab.

(2). "Sir Mix-A-Lot." Oh, it is so funny every time Carroll makes that reference when writing about Billingsley. I have laughed all twelve or so times. The point I made above is relevant here too. Some people are big in the caboose without being fat. Like Jennifer Lopez, just to name one famous person (just watch now: Carroll's new nick-name for Billingsley will be "J-Lo"). Since Billingsley's big butt isn't related to any health concerns and is just a cosmetic peculiarity, maybe Carroll can continue in the realm of talking about "who's hot and who's not" among today's baseball players by telling us which players' hair style's need work.

(3). "...and to add to the risk, a lot of miles on his young arm already." Despite Carroll having predicted every year now for quite a while that Billingsley is about to fall apart, here's the thing: Billingsley has pitched six consecutive pro seasons since being drafted out of high school, and in all that time he has never had an arm injury, has never missed a single game because of "arm soreness," even. He has only had one injury in six years that made him miss action, and that was an oblique strain three years. Thus, Billingsley has more innings on his arm than most pitchers his age because he has been a lot more durable than pitchers his age have usually been. What this fact reduces Carroll's claim to is the idea that Billingsley is a health risk because he has been just TOO healthy. I bet missing a year or two because of arm surgery would have kept those innings-pitched levels from getting so worryingly high.

If Carroll wants to try, one of these days, to write something useful related to Billingsley, here is an angle to explore: why has Billingsley's arm been so healthy, for so long? I will even help him with a starting point for such an inquiry. After the Dodgers drafted Billingsley, the MLB.com reporter who still covers the Dodgers to this day, Ken Gurnick, published an article about Billingsley, dated June 3, 2003. I quote from that article: "Billingsley was trained as a youth by his father, Jim, who read in a Nolan Ryan book that young pitchers should throw before, during, and after games to build strength. 'I'm a student of baseball, but I was a lab supervisor and I focused on the technical, little things,' said Jim Billingsley. 'We approached it from the simplest things. We never let anything mechanical slip by. That's why he's had a very healthy, strong arm.'" Later in the article, Billingsley's high-school baseball coach, Tom Held, is quoted saying of Billingsley, "His arm strength and resiliency is amazing. In four years he's never had a sore arm." So four amateur seasons plus six pro seasons equals 10 consecutive seasons now without an arm injury of even the most trivial kind. It sounds to me like there just may be some wisdom in that Nolan Ryan book Billingsley's dad read.

Feb 12, 2009 11:41 AM
rating: 15
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

Always great to hear from you, Mr. Billingsley!

Feb 12, 2009 11:51 AM

Thanks Will for this substantative respone to a pretty persuasive critique.

Feb 12, 2009 13:44 PM
rating: 1

I smell the making of an interesting article - all the pitchers who are viewed as big injury risks who have yet to succumb to the knife - Francisco Rodriguez, Felix Hernandez, Chad Billingsley, maybe even little Timmy Lincecum, etc.. Why they are projected to hurt themselves - reasons as to why they may not (yet) have hurt themselves - special things they do that makes them different, etc.

Feb 12, 2009 11:54 AM
rating: 1

I agree. Sure Billingsley has a solid lower base but isn't that the recommended way to pitch? Isn't that what makes pitchers strong? Will has been talking about injury risk pitchers that use their upper body with the a upper body snap as injuries waiting to happen. I haven't studied Billingsley's motion but if he's using Nolan Ryan's style as an example to emulate, he's using his lower body.

This picture doesn't look like an overweight guy to me. He's no Cole Hamels but he's also not Rick Reuschel.


Feb 12, 2009 17:24 PM
rating: 1

Unless Billingsley is living in my little corner of Canada, there's not much chance that I'm him. But I am a fan of his, which is why the nonsense you keep writing about Chad bugs me in a way it wouldn't if you were trashing, without basis, a player I couldn't give two hoots about. I would let a fan of THAT player stick up for him.

Feb 12, 2009 11:59 AM
rating: 0
Chad Moriyama

Generally speaking, all pitchers get injured sooner or later. So if you predict disaster every year, you're bound to be able to say "I told you so" eventually.

Probably threw a party when he fractured his leg. Maybe he'll give out free BP subscriptions to everybody if he blows out his arm someday.

Feb 12, 2009 22:40 PM
rating: 1

Come now Will, every Dodger Thought reader knows you have been crying wolf about Billingsley for at least the last three years.

Just curious what wall did Kuroda hit at the end of the season? Did you even look at his numbers before making such a silly claim about the best pitcher in the Dodger postseason. The guy got stronger in Aug/Sept not weaker. Maybe you are confusing June/July with being the end of the season but here in LA we play baseball into October.

We pay for premium content, we expect premium research.

Feb 12, 2009 12:05 PM
rating: 2

He might have been referring to his lack of stamina at the end of the year. While he pitched well, he lasted only 5.5 innings per start in September.

Feb 12, 2009 18:07 PM
rating: 0

"Kershaw threw 160 innings as a 20-year-old. If he lasts the season and makes 30-plus starts, he'll push past 200 IP unless the organization places draconian limits on his workload. Find me a recent pitcher who did that at those ages and lasted."

CC Sabathia

Feb 12, 2009 12:14 PM
rating: 2

How many pitchers threw 160 innings as a 20 year old and 200 as a 21 year old period?

Feb 12, 2009 12:35 PM
rating: 1

Tanana went right to 269 innings at age 20. But then he threw 246 professional innings at age 19 so 269 innings at age 20 was not that big of a jump. His arm didn't discombobulate until age 23.

Feb 12, 2009 12:41 PM
rating: 0

Why would it take draconian limits to keep him from hitting 200 innings? 30 starts at 60 innings seems about right to me. BP doesn't expect the Dodgers to make the postseason so no October innings either. Is missing a start once a month considered draconian?

Feb 12, 2009 12:36 PM
rating: 0

It's no surprise to see Will taking gratuitous, unsupported potshots at Billingsley again. It's almost become comical at this point, Will. It's like there's some rogue section of your brain which loses all capacity for rational thought whenever the word "Billingsley" is mentioned. Either that or there's some motivation for it we're not aware of.

Either way, your nonsensical rantings about Billingsley over a period of many years have (at least for me) served to detract significantly from your overall credibility, even though you do otherwise fine work.

Feb 12, 2009 12:51 PM
rating: 1

Vargas gets a green light? Isn't he the one member of the rotation who missed time last year with a sore elbow?
From The Baseball Forecaster:
3-2, 4.62 ERA in 37 IP at NYM. Another step back. Pitched poorly with NYM, even worse in minors, then went down with a sore elbow in Aug. 30-year-old journeyman with marginal skills AND a bad arm? Sign me up!

Feb 12, 2009 12:58 PM
rating: 0

Over the last 20 years there has been only one major league pitcher who met Will's criteria for comparison to Kershaw (160 IP at age 20; 200 IP at age 21), and that is noted injury sufferer C.C. Sabathia.

(Of course, this is incomplete information - I don't have a database to search for pitchers who had Kershawesque IP totals in the majors/minors combined.)

Feb 12, 2009 13:27 PM
rating: 0

I'm just wondering what the numbers mean.

Feb 12, 2009 14:55 PM
rating: -1

I don't know but Andrew wins.

Feb 12, 2009 17:41 PM
rating: -1
Chad Moriyama

Well, I guess if you keep crying wolf with Billingsley long enough, you're bound to be correct one of these days.

Feb 12, 2009 22:35 PM
rating: 0
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