Chad Billingsley is sharp as a tack at times, wholly ineffective at others. (Lisa Blumenfeld / Getty…)
Not long ago pitcher Chad Billingsley was chatting with Don Mattingly when the Dodgers manager asked him:
" 'Chad, do you ever get tired about answering the questions? Because I get tired of answering the questions,'" Mattingly recalled. "And he said, 'I'm used to it now.'"
The recurring questions boil down to: Will Billingsley ever again come close to winning 16 games in a season as he did early in his career in 2008? . . . Or is he destined to remain the .500 or so pitcher he's been ever since? . . . And why is he so unsteady?
It's a conundrum that won't go away for Dodgers followers, who endlessly debate Billingsley's inconsistency, because of outings like the one he had Friday in Anaheim.
Staked to an early 5-0 lead against the Angels, Billingsley promptly gave up six runs and 10 hits and left after five innings in the Dodgers' 8-5 defeat.
His record fell to 4-6 and his earned-run average rose to 4.15, highest among the Dodgers' five starters.
It was Billingsley's second consecutive loss; six days earlier he allowed five runs (four earned) in six innings against the Chicago White Sox.
Yet he was stellar in his first two starts in June, against Philadelphia and Seattle, allowing only one run in seven innings in each game.
That's the rub with Billingsley — he's sharp as a tack at times, wholly ineffective at others.
So the debate about his inconsistency goes on, even if it's a tired discussion for Mattingly and the Dodgers, who note that while every player obviously wants to improve, Billingsley overall has had a solid career so far.
"We want better, we think he can do better, but at the end of the day it's still pretty good," Mattingly said of Billingsley's record.
Billingsley is earning $9 million this season, the first of a three-year, $35-million contract extension he signed before the start of last season. There also is a $14-million club option for 2015.
Before the Angels series, Billingsley said "I feel I've been pitching well," adding that he's made adjustments to his pitching mechanics and pitch selection that helped him "feel way better than I did last year."
"Wins, losses, I don't really have a comment on it," he said. "There are times when you pitch terrible and still get the win and times you pitch good and get the loss. That's just baseball."
The 27-year-old Billingsley is a reserved, polite and soft-spoken native of Defiance, Ohio. He was the Dodgers' first-round draft pick in 2003, reached the big leagues in 2006, went 12-5 with a 3.31 ERA the following season and, in 2008, went 16-10 with a 3.14 ERA.
In the next three seasons he was 12-11, 12-11 and 11-11. Counting this year's 4-6 record, he is exactly at .500 (39-39) since 2008. That has spawned questions about whether Billingsley was an underachiever, because "now the expectations are for him to be not just a 16-game winner but to continue on" winning at least that many in a season, Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said.
But looking at Billingsley's career as a whole, his record is 74-58 with a 3.71 ERA and he's won 11 or more games for five consecutive years. "He's yet to have a losing season professionally," Mattingly said.
Billingsley also is a reliable part of the Dodgers' rotation, having pitched 188 innings or more in each of the four seasons before this one.
After tweaking the mechanics of his delivery in spring training, "I feel like I can keep my delivery more consistent than in the past, so that's good," Billingsley said.
"My fastball — I've been so much better than last year," he said. "I'm throwing balls where I want to, in or out." Even so, he said there's no avoiding those times when "I've jammed the heck out of [a batter] and it falls in for a hit."
Honeycutt agreed that Billingsley has "made adjustments and, for me, the ball is coming out of his hand much better than last year."
But Billingsley also "could be more aggressive inside on right-handers," who are batting .277 against him this year, Honeycutt said. "Right-handers this so far this year have had better success than they should with his stuff." (Left-handed hitters are batting .260 against him.)
And now Billingsley has surrendered 10 earned runs in his last 11 innings, so the doubts and frustration about him drag on even as the Dodgers remain optimistic.
"Maybe we can break through to 14 or 15 [wins]" again, Mattingly said. "Maybe it's this year. Who knows?"