Billingsley a Phillies Feel-Good Story
Over the course of the long Major League Baseball season, it’s nice for fans to be presented with a feel-good story about a ballplayer who has faced and overcome adversity. For the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015, Chad Billingsley fits the profile of that player.
The 30-year-old righthander made his first MLB start in over two years when he took the mound for the Phillies on Tuesday night against the Atlanta Braves. While the results weren’t pretty (5 IP, 8 H, 5 ER), appearing in a major league game was a big step in the hurler’s mission to prove that he’s still got the stuff to pitch and compete at the highest level.
Two seasons ago, on April 15, 2013 while pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Billingsley suffered an elbow injury in a game he started against the San Diego Padres. Shortly after that outing, Billingsley was faced with news that no pitcher wants to hear: He would need Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow.
Recovery time for Tommy John surgery is about 12 months, meaning that Billingsley would miss the rest of the 2013 season and part of the 2014 season. The injury was a major blow to the Dodgers, as Billingsley had been an part of the team’s rotation dating back to 2007.
“After the Tommy John surgery then the flexor surgery, it was, “Man, am I ever going to pitch again? Am I ever going to get back?” ~ Billingsley
After selecting Billingsley in the first round (24th overall) of the 2003 MLB amateur draft out of Defiance High School (OH), the Dodgers had big plans for the righty, and he did not disappoint. From 2007 to 2012, he compiled a 73-57 record, and recorded a 3.65 ERA.
Billingsley also showed his durability during this time, tossing over 180 innings in four of those six seasons. He was a National League All-Star in 2009, and pitched in the postseason in 2006, 2008 and 2009, with three of his six postseason starts coming against the Phillies.
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After undergoing the surgery, Billingsley hoped to return to form in 2014 and help the Dodgers win on a team that was loaded with talent. With a rotation already consisting of ace Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, Zack Greinke, and Dan Haren, adding Billingsley would give the team one of the most feared rotations in baseball. And with a lineup that featured sluggers Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Carl Crawford, the pitchers would have plenty of support to back them up.
Unfortunately, Billingsley never got the chance to stake his claim in the rotation. Following a number of setbacks during his rehab outings for the Dodgers High-A affiliate, he tore a flexor tendon in the same elbow in June, putting an end to any chance of pitching for the Dodgers in 2014. To make matters worse, Billingsley was at the end of a three-year, $35 million contract he signed with the team in 2011.
With two major injuries and surgeries in a little over two years, Billingsley admittedly began to wonder if the injuries would be too much for him to return to the majors and be effective again.
“After the Tommy John surgery then the flexor surgery, it was, “Man, am I ever going to pitch again? Am I ever going to get back?’” Billingsley said. “It was such a mental grind.”
This particular injury would only put him out for about six months, giving Billingsley a chance to sign with a team in need of pitching depth for the 2015 season. That would give him the opportunity to prove himself again. The Phillies gave Billingsley that chance.
The South Heidelberg (Berks County) resident signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal with the team that included performance incentives. The Phillies knew Billingsley likely wouldn’t be ready for the start of the season, but were willing to give him time to build up arm strength and work his way to facing live hitters once again.
After working some innings in extended spring training, Billingsley started three games for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He was then brought up to the big league squad to make his first start in more than two seasons against the Braves this past Tuesday.
Though the outing did not go completely according to plan, the rigorous journey that Billingsley endured to get back to the major leagues was remarkable in itself. Braves pitcher Shelby Miller, Billingsley’s counterpart Tuesday night, told MLB.com that Billingsley’s fight to return from two career threatening injuries was something that he admired.
“Obviously he didn’t have the start he wanted,” Miller said. “But just getting back to the Major Leagues after what he’s gone through is special. You tip your cap to guys like that who battle for their career.”
Though Billingsley wasn’t particularly pleased with the way the first outing went, he said he felt fine out on the mound. “Not the way I envisioned it going, but a couple of mistakes and I paid for it. It’s part of being back out there again. But I felt good,” said Billingsley.
Signing Billingsley was another low-risk, high-reward signing made by the Phillies this past offseason. He is in a similar situation to Aaron Harang, who signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the club. If Billingsley strings together some strong starts between now and the trade deadline, he could warrant trade value for teams looking to add pitching depth down the stretch.
It’s hard to project how the righty will perform after just that lone start back in two years, but with his track record of success, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he rebounds and becomes a solid back-end rotation option at this stage in his career. For having gone through two surgeries on the same elbow, his velocity still seems to be on par to previous years.
Right now, his job is to put the Phillies in a position to win every fifth day. It is always tough to see a pitcher go down and be faced with undergoing Tommy John surgery, especially if that pitcher was successful before the injury.
Given everything that has happened to him, it’s hard not to root for a guy who has worked so hard to get back to the professional level after two major setbacks. Look for Billingsley to be more composed and more effective as he tries to defeat the division-leading New York Mets on Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.