On the occasion of Homer Bailey getting a raise, I wondered whether we should reasonably expect a corresponding leap in performance. Homer and the Reds settled on a salary of $2.43M, which happens to be over five times the amount he made last year while hovering at league minimum. Do we expect him to be 5x better this season? Well, of course we do not.
Slightly less absurdly, we do expect him to be worth more than he's paid. His 2011 season would have been valued at $6.6M on the open market, per FanGraphs. The measured expectation for Bailey's 2012 lies somewhere in between his former pedigree and the trend of his production entering his Age 26 season. The challenge in evaluating Homer Bailey for 2012 is bound up in those expectations that preceded his major league debut. He peaked on Baseball America's league-wide list of prospects at #9 prior to the 2008 season. A Billboard on the interstate (which one, I don't remember) reading "He has come" showed up around the time of his 2007 debut. He was the Reds future ace even before Bronson Arroyo was a gleam in Wayne Krivsky's eye.
But now, Homer has spent 436 innings and portions of five seasons in the majors. Fans and fundits have largely stopped making pronouncements about this being the year he "puts it all together," breaks out and grows into his anointed role as staff ace. He's yet to post an ERA below 4.40 or an ERA+ above 93. I think the disappointment in Homer never being the Second Coming of whoever he was supposed to be the Second Coming of, though, misses the point.
It's better to stop looking for crown moldings and recessed lighting and realize there's a New Ceiling for Homer. Revised expectations don't mean that he's locked in as a 4.40 ERA pitcher from here to the end of his career. Homer may not be a durable pitcher (he's yet to log more than 132 major league innings in a season). But it's worth remembering, though he's been in the org since 2004, that 2010 was the first season he broke camp with the Reds. He won't be 26 until May. It's still premature to say he's incapable of reaching 200 innings for at least a run of a few seasons.
He's also been improving: incrementally, gradually. If you adjust for park and run environment, his ERA basically stayed flat over the last 3 season. Far from encouraging. However, his walk rate has slid every single season, from 5.6/9IP to a very healthy 2.3 BB/9 last season. His K-rate dropped in 2011, over his 2010 peak, but his velocity did tick up in the second-half of 2011 as he pulled away from his early-season injuries.
A 9-inning K-rate greater than 8.0 (which he had in 2010) and a walk rate less than 2.5-per-nine (which he had in 2011) isn't out of the question. Putting them both in the same healthy season puts Homer in elite company. Only three of the 27 starting pitchers who have done that over the last 3 seasons had an ERA+ below 100 (two of those three are Ricky Nolasco, one is James Shields). And Nolasco and Baker represent the low end of that talent pool.
Homer's batted balls don't seem to be betraying him too much, with a 2011 BABIP around his career average. There could be a little bad luck and GABP-related fly ball mischief, suggested by an xFIP under 4.00. There's certainly nothing in his peripherals that say he's been pitching over his head. Mix in some good breaks for his health and the improvements of age and experience and Bailey fits well within his role in the rotation.
Cueto, Latos and Leake are probably going 1-2-3 in the 2012 rotation, so Homer will be called on as the 4th or 5th starter. With no options and a packed bullpen, he's hemmed in. With the team gunning for the playoffs, getting at least league-average out of a 4th/5th starter is critical. The standard lies somewhere between Edwin Jackson and Jake Westbrook, or between Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. I hate to think this is lowering the bar so that Homer can trip over it, but I think he's going to surprise us within those lowered expectations. I can see the billboard now: "HE IS COMING, JUST BE PATIENT." (OR, less suggestive: PURGATORY IS REAL).