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Updating the Top 100: Homer Bailey

A mysterious enigma, wrapped in a freshly skinned fur coat.

Joe Robbins

Such is the mystery of Homer Bailey: The player who debuted at age 21 after roaring through the farm system, the player who has just ended his eighth season (full or partial) with the big league club, the player who is months removed from signing a nine-digit contract that will keep him with the Reds through his age 33 season has just completed an injury-shortened season that saw Bailey win 9 games, throw 145 innings and pitch to an ERA that was worse than league average.  What is the mystery?  This past season, clearly a disappointing one, was Bailey's third best of his career.

As an amateur not-a-scout from my living room couch, I can rather quickly observe and articulate why Johnny Cueto is a better pitcher than, say, Mike Leake.  Better pitch movement, higher velocity, deadlier out pitch.  Not to disparage Leake's production, of course, but there's some cognitive resonance in the fact that what is apparent on-screen also is reflected on the back of each player's baseball card.

Bailey, on the other hand, can damn near jump off the television with talent.  His two career no-hitters are noteworthy pieces evidence of that, although they would be easily dismissed if they were the only moments of dominance from Bailey.  They are not.  However, walk through a simple mental exercise: Create a mental image of each significant pitcher from the Reds throwing one pitch.  What do you get?  Here's mine...

  • Cueto throwing a changeup that sinks and tails into oblivion
  • Simon throwing a hard two-seamer that nips the low outside corner
  • Latos throwing a fastball that bores through the bottom of the strike zone on an impossibly steep plane
  • Leake throwing a two-seamer with movement...thrown early in the count and meant to be hit, weakly
  • Chapman throwing 102 in the batter's eyes for a swinging strike
  • Bailey throwing a 95 mph 4-seamer that gets fouled off

This isn't scientific, I get that.  But my mental image of Bailey is of a pitcher whose stuff takes no back seat to any other pitcher on the staff (excepting Chapman, of course), but is unable to put the hitter away.  Maybe I remember the 11 pitch at-bats when a strikeout is absolutely necessary, maybe Bailey simply gets into more jams whereby the intensity is elevated.  I'm still left with the perception that something is missing.

Ordinarily, I would chalk the missing element to the player's intelligence.  I don't feel ready to do that with Bailey, who gives every impression of being a bright guy.

I am, however, partially willing to assign some demerit points to Bailey's pitch repertoire.  I spent some time digging around at Brooks Baseball to get a better feel for Bailey's stuff.  Rather amazingly, he's listed as being a 5-pitch pitcher (4-seam, slider, sinker, splitter, curve), and he throws each pitch at least 7% of the time.  The curve is the only true "off-speed" pitch, as it averages 80-81 mph.  The next slowest pitch, the splitter, averages 87 mph.

Back to the curve: it's a 12-to-6 style curve, and when it's on, Bailey is right to lean on the thing.  On average, swing and miss on about 12% of Bailey's curveballs.  However, there are individual games where Bailey's curve racks up a 30%+ whiff rate.  Pretty good, right?  Only when it's good.  When batters do make contact, the curve might as well be on a tee.  Opponents' slugging percentage against the curveball has been over .500 in each of the last three seasons, and reached .741 in 2014.

That's not to suggest Bailey is becoming a worse pitcher.  His split-finger pitch has become nearly unhittable and his slider is almost as lethal.

I'm not a pitching coach nor am I a scout.  I barely pitched when I was growing up.  I have no idea what I'm talking about, as a general rule.  But the data suggest it may be time to either harness the curve or shelf it.  If it's the latter, then the Reds are stuck for a good many years with a starting pitcher without an effective off-speed pitch.  That's rarely a good omen.

Bailey has started 166 games for the Reds, and is four outs away from reaching 1,000 innings pitched.  He holds a 58-50 record and his 4.17 ERA is good for a 96 ERA+.  Homer makes his debut on the honorable mention list, checking in at #225.