The Bullpen Should Be Homer Bailey’s New Home

If you’re like me, when you reminisce about 2012 you’re probably thinking about two things: (1) the Cincinnati Reds were champions of the National League Central Division, and (2) that awful disaster flick starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. I like talking about unwatchable movies more than anyone, but let’s look back to the 2012 baseball season for a moment.

That season, five starting pitchers made every start but one as the Reds tore through the National League on their way to … well, wherever they ended up. I forget. Anyway, four of those five (Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Bronson Arroyo) have drifted to new destinations. Cueto and Leake are still pitching in the big leagues, though Cueto is injured at the moment.

Only one pitcher from that 2012 rotation is still on the Cincinnati staff all these many years later. Yep, you guessed it: John Cusack. No, wait, that isn’t right. Cusack is a third baseman. The pitcher in question is Homer Bailey, and it might be time to rethink his role on this club.

Yes, David Dewitt “Homer” Bailey was 26 years old back in 2012 and on the verge of breaking out. He went 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA (112 ERA+) that season, leading the NL in games started (33). He also tossed a late-season no-hitter and pitched seven dazzling one-hit, 10-strikeout innings against the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the NL Division Series that October.

The following season, Bailey was even better; he started 32 games and lowered his ERA to 3.49. In July, he authored his second no-hitter (over those same Giants). In August, some yahoo at ESPN.com even declared that Homer had finally become an ace. He faded a bit down the stretch, but after the season Bailey and the Reds agreed on a six-year, $105 million contract. It seemed like great things lay ahead.

You know the rest of the story. Bailey hit the disabled list late in 2014 with “arm fatigue.” It hadn’t improved by the following spring, and the pitcher ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery. Bailey made just eight combined starts in 2015 and 2016 and then underwent another surgery, this time on his elbow, in spring 2017.

Bailey did return in the second half of last season, but over the last four years he’s made just 35 total starts, going 9-18 with a 6.17 ERA (70 ERA+). Though there were moments last season when he briefly resembled the pitcher he once was, we’ve seen very little of that in 2018 so far: 1-5, 5.59 ERA. I’m not necessarily ready to throw in the towel on the idea that Bailey can be a legitimate big league starter again, and the Reds don’t really have anyone to take his place anyway. But at some point, the team needs to consider the possibility that Bailey can help the club best in the bullpen.

Look, Bailey has had a couple of nice starts this season, but the trends aren’t encouraging. He’s striking out fewer hitters per nine innings than he ever has—the last two years, his strikeout-to-walk ratio has dropped off a cliff—and he’s also inducing fewer ground balls than at any time in his career. Consequently, he leads the league in hits and home runs allowed.

Even worse, Homer’s peripherals aren’t particularly pretty either. He’s getting roughly as many swings and misses with his slider and curve as he did back during the salad days of 2013, but his four-seam fastball and sinker aren’t fooling anyone these days. Check out this chart that shows what percentage of his pitches are swings and misses.

Look at those four-seam and sinker whiff percentages. Yikes!

Over the last couple of years, Bailey has been using his curve less and his slider more, but if he can’t get the fastball—four-seam or sinker—working, it’s going to be difficult to get big league hitters out. On the other hand, his fastball velocity isn’t far off what it was back in 2013; his four-seam and sinker are each about one MPH slower currently.

Which is why I think Bailey might be destined for success in the bullpen. Think about it: if he’s just throwing one or two innings, he can throw with max effort on every pitch. Maybe that will make the difference. It has certainly made a difference with Amir Garrett. After averaging 92 MPH on his four-seamer as a starter last year, Garrett is throwing 95 MPH out of the bullpen in 2018. And the results have been correspondingly great; he’s striking out more than 10 batters per 9 innings, with a 1.57 ERA.

[On a related note, Garrett needs to be in the starting rotation right now. Yes, he’s doing great as a reliever, but why are we giving up on a 26 year old as a starter candidate?]

Of course, Garrett has all that youth and vitality on his side, things that Bailey can’t necessarily call upon. But it has been a long time—almost four full years—since Bailey has been a productive big league starting pitcher, and if he can’t find the groove soon, there’s no downside in seeing if he can be a shutdown reliever.

It worked for another hard-throwing right-hander, John Smoltz. I don’t want to get too carried away with this comparison, since Smoltz is a Hall of Famer, but he’s the guy I keep thinking about when I watch Bailey. Smoltz missed an entire season at age 33, but from ages 34 to 37, working almost exclusively as a reliever, Smoltz posted a 2.65 ERA with 154 saves and dazzling peripheral numbers. He then returned to the rotation and finished out an incredible career. OK, well, Homer Bailey is no John Smoltz.

But is it possible that Bailey could carve out an important role for this club as a back-of-the-bullpen reliever? What’s the harm in trying?

A caveat: For years, there have been rumors that Bailey takes a long time to get his arm loose. This might be a thing. Since returning from the disabled list last year, he’s had much more success the second time through an opponent’s lineup than the first time through (and he gets rocked the third time he faces the opposition). But this might just be small sample size noise, since Bailey didn’t display these tendencies before all the injuries derailed his career.

Anyway, there’s no urgency to try it immediately. But Anthony DeSclafani is beginning a rehab assignment in the minor leagues this week. I won’t fool myself into thinking that DeSclafani will ever be healthy, but if things go well, Disco could make it back to the big leagues soon. If and when that happens, the Reds will have to make room for him in the starting rotation.

Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, and Sal Romano aren’t going anywhere; they’re the trio we’re counting on to lead the Reds into the next wave of competitive baseball. Matt Harvey is a superhero, evidently.

So why not try Bailey in the bullpen? I like Homer more than most Reds fans—and I think the Reds were justified in offering him that big contract all those years ago—but 2019 will be his final year in Cincinnati (unless the Reds pick up his option and pay him $25 million for 2020, which is as likely as the chances of me starting at shortstop on Opening Day). The club needs to see if they can get some value out of him before he fades off into the sunset.

Maybe a move to the bullpen will help Homer Bailey finally reach his potential as an ace; it’ll just be as a flame-throwing relief ace. That’s not what we envisioned back in 2012, but it might be the best we can hope for today.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, “The Big 50: The Men and Moments that made the Cincinnati Reds” is available now, in bookstores and online.

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