- Born: May 3, 1986 (age 31) in La Grange, TX
- Ranked by Baseball America as the Reds’ top prospect three straight seasons and reached as high as No. 5 on their Top 100 list in 2007.
- Has thrown only two Reds no-hitters of my lifetime.
- Underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015, just weeks into his second season after signing a six year, $105 million dollar contract extension.
Drafted by the Cincinnati Reds with the seventh overall pick in 2004 MLB Amateur Draft.
Debuted on June 8, 2007 (age 21) vs. CLE (5 IP, 5 H, 3 K, 4 BB, 2 ER, W).
Rookie status: Exceeded rookie limits during 2008 season.
2018 Contact Status: Signed thru 2019, 6 yrs/$105M (14-19) & mutual option for 20.
Zone profiles are always fun to look at, but it’s also nice to look at the velocity chart and see that Bailey isn’t throwing any less hard than he was before Tommy John.
The 2017 Cincinnati Reds had some spectacularly unsexy ERAs. Scott Feldman led the team in starts and had an ERA of 4.77. Tim Adleman led the team in innings pitched and had an ERA of 5.52. Neither of those fellas are even on the team anymore.
A few pitchers, though, went through stretches that showed you a glimpse of what they’re capable of. Robert Stephenson finished the year with a 4.68 ERA, but had a 2.50 ERA over his final 10 appearances. Sal Romano’s ERA for the year was 4.45, but he had a stretch of six starts in which he posted an ERA of 2.09. Amir Garrett’s ERA was 7.39, which seems insane given that, in his first six starts of the year, he threw six innings or more and allowed two runs or fewer in five of them.
I looked for a stretch like that with Homer Bailey (6.43 ERA) — a run of four or five quality starts over which he showed some evidence that he was putting it together. There are none. Bailey was all over the damn place, spending the entire season alternating between respectable outings and very, very bad ones. He allowed eight runs in his first start, six in his second, one in each of his next two, and then eight again. September was far and away his best month, showing a 4.08 ERA over five starts, and even then, he allowed at least four runs in two of those games.
In short, he’s given us little to no reason to be optimistic about what he can do this season. I’m going to go ahead and be optimistic anyway.
The first reason for that is, despite getting hammered with a 6.47 ERA in the 114 big league innings he’s pitched since coming back from Tommy John surgery, his performance hasn’t been as far from making him a serviceable rotation piece as one would expect. He carried a 4.98 FIP last season and a 115 xFIP-, meaning his expected FIP was only about 15 percent higher than major league average, which is a lot closer than I would have originally guessed.
So why the discrepancy in his ERA and his FIP? Well, for one, Bailey has been hit with some truly horrifying batted ball luck in his last two seasons. Opponents batted .452 on balls in play against him in his short 23-inning stint in 2016, and hit .346 on balls in play in 2017. It’s an alarming uptick from his .304 career BABIP, something one would expect to come from an increase in hard contact. But that isn’t the case for Bailey, whose 31% hard contact percentage in 2017 was pretty much right in line with the 30.5% he allowed in 2013 — his best season by virtually every measure — when opponents hit just .284 on balls in play against him. His medium contact percentage was just four decimal points off what it was in 2013, and his soft-hit percentage was just one decimal point off.
But Bailey’s problems in 2017 weren’t restricted to the fact that opponents were having better luck on balls in play. They also put more balls in play in general, and therein lays a potentially serious issue. Bailey’s strikeouts tanked in 2017, down to just 6.6 per nine innings, the lowest rate of any season in which he has thrown more than 50 innings in his career. To compound the issue, his walk rate also ballooned to 4.2 per nine — again, the highest of any season in his career in which he’s thrown at least 50 innings.
I wish I could tell you what’s behind those two problematic developments, but to be honest, nothing seems to really jump out as the answer. His velocity, as seen in the chart above, remains where it’s always been. Opponents chased the same percentage of pitches as they always have — 31.1% in 2017 compared with a 30.9% career average — and made only slightly more contact (67.2% in 2017, 64.9% career average) when chasing, with Bailey’s swinging strike percentage for 2017 coming in just one decimal point under his career rate.
The closest I came to an explanation was when I looked at whiff percentages in his zone profile from 2017 and compared it to 2013. Here’s 2013, the year Bailey’s K/9 was a career-best 8.6 and his walk rate was a measly 2.3:
And here’s 2017:
The first thing that jumps out is that hitters completely stopped chasing pitches high out of the zone, which is where Bailey seemed to achieve his highest rate of whiffs when he was at his best. He also doesn’t have the same swing-and-miss stuff below the knees, despite the fact that, according to Brooks Baseball, he used his splitter just as much in 2017 as he did in 2013, and that splitter got roughly the same whiff percentage in both seasons. Does this mean his fastball just doesn’t have the same life as it once did, despite it remaining consistent in velocity? Or has the fact that he’s essentially put the sinker in his pocket made hitters more able to sit breaking ball when the pitch is coming in around the knees?
Without a clear answer as to why the strikeouts dropped and the walks went up, it’s difficult to say what it will take for Bailey to correct the problem in 2018. But I’m still hopeful. It’s been a long time since the vast majority of us stopped hoping for Bailey to be the ace on a playoff team that prospect lists deemed him to be more than a decade ago. But I also think it’s too early to give up on him being a steady mid-rotation starter for a team that is desperate for some consistency and experience on its pitching staff.
At 31 years old, Bailey will be the oldest pitcher on the staff gunning for a rotation spot barring some unforeseen free agent signing or waiver claim. He’ll be one of just three pitchers on the staff who have approached a full season of starting in the majors. A fully healthy and effective Bailey would mean a lot to a Cincinnati team that is coming off two seasons of desperate flailing on the mound, both in its starters and its relievers.
I don’t think that’s out of the question. A turnaround in batted-ball luck alone could make Bailey a pitcher who is capable of pitching sub-5.00 ERA ball over the course of a full season. Thirty-two starts of that make him a worthwhile asset to the Reds in the year of our Lord 2018. And if he should become a pitcher who is capable of 7.0 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 again, he might just turn in a season that makes the $21 million he’ll earn this year seem like money well spent.