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David DeWitt Bailey. You know him as Homer, and you may have noticed that he signed a new contract with the Reds back in February. The screaming hoards of Reds fans who watched Bailey’s five starts in April of this year most certainly noticed, and they have given him an earful about it.
By this point, Homer has surely grown accustomed to the scrutiny. Since being drafted in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2004 MLB draft, Bailey has had more unreasonable expectations placed upon his shoulders than any other Red in recent memory. That’s not surprising, perhaps. Bailey was rated in some quarters as the #1 pitching prospect in baseball while in the minor leagues, and anyone who saw that magical right arm in the minors could be excused for thinking that the sky was the limit.
Since his major league debut—at age 21—on June 8, 2007, however, Bailey has widely been considered a disappointment…until recently. It’s an assessment that has been encouraged by certain radio personalities, and the last two seasons have shown how patently unfair some of the criticism has been. Homer’s last two seasons have also been a reminder that you don’t want to be too hasty in giving up on a young pitcher with a live arm.
Homer’s breakthrough came in 2012 (when he went 13-10 with a 3.68 ERA), but 2013 was the season in which Bailey really began to open eyes. On the surface, Bailey’s numbers look good, but not great: 11-12, 3.49 ERA. If you dig a little deeper into his peripheral statistics, however, you begin to see why the Reds were comfortable dishing out $105 million over the next six years.
Homer’s fielding-independent-pitching numbers (FIP and xFIP) in 2013 were, by far, the best of his career (3.31 FIP, 3.34 xFIP). Similarly, he was striking out more hitters per 9 innings (8.6 K/9) and inducing more ground balls (46.1 GB%) than ever before. That’s a recipe for success at Great American Ball Park.
There are some specific reasons for his jump in effectiveness, as I noted last year.
First of all, Homer’s average four-seam fastball was 95.16 mph in 2013. That’s an increase of nearly 2 full miles per hour over what he was throwing just two seasons before. In addition, Bailey mastered that split-fingered fastball; last year, he induced swings-and-misses on 20.62% of splitters thrown. In 2012, that rate was 15.8%, and it was just 10.1% in 2011. Big-time improvement, and it’s a big reason for the leap in his ground ball rate.
Fast forward to 2014. Remember those disgruntled fans I mentioned earlier, who have been unhappy about all the money Reds owner Bob Castellini threw at Homer? Well, in April of this year, Bailey’s critics were given all the ammunition they needed. His performance was dreadful: after five starts, Homer was 1-2 with a 6.15 ERA. Ugly.
But honestly, it’s not as bad as it seems. Yes, April was almost as bad as it seemed, I will concede. Yet since May arrived, Bailey has begun to round into form, posting a 6-1 record with a 3.81 ERA. His last four starts have been even better, as Bailey has won four in a row while putting up a 2.57 ERA. The Homer we expected has returned, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that this is the Homer we will see for the rest of the season and beyond.
It’s pretty easy to see why Homer struggled early in the season. Let’s not forget that Bailey suffered a groin strain early in spring training; certainly, that was a setback as he tried to prepare for the season. That’s a convenient excuse, however. The fact is that Bailey struggled with the home run ball and with his command early in the year.
Last year, Bailey posted a magnificent 0.86 HR/9 (home runs allowed per 9 innings), the best mark of his career. Thus far in 2014, he’s at 1.26 HR/9, which would be his worst since 2008. Also, he’s allowed a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .328; whether that means he’s been unlucky, I don’t know, but that’s an unsustainably high number. Expect a regression to the mean. As for the home run numbers, fear not: Homer has only surrendered five homers in his last ten starts. He’s returning to form.
Otherwise, Bailey’s numbers this year (with one notable exception) are consistent with the level of performance he has established over the last couple of years. His strikeout rate is good (8.04 K/9), and he is inducing an even greater percentage of ground balls than he did last year (52.7%). His fastball velocity (95.17 mph) is almost identical to his 2013 mark, and he’s actually inducing even more swings-and-misses with the splitter. (Though, interestingly enough, he’s seeing fewer ground balls from the splitter this season—only 3.73%—as compared to 2013—10.43%. That seems likely to be a small sample size issue.)
Heck, despite the struggles in April, Bailey’s xFIP still ranks among the top 20 in the NL, and is third-best on the Reds staff. If he can just regain his command, Bailey should be sitting pretty. Through his first thirteen starts, his BB/9 sits at 2.87; that mark has lowered over the last month and a half, but it’s still his highest walk rate since 2010. For whatever reason, Homer has thrown fewer strikes this year with every pitch in his arsenal aside from his fastball and splitter.
I know, as Reds fans, we are accustomed to worrying about anything and everything—I think it’s in our DNA—but I’m here to tell you that you can safely cross Homer off the list of Reds-related items about which you should be concerned. We’re talking about a guy who just turned 28 years old and who, after a rough month, is back to pitching exactly like he’s pitched over the last two-plus years.
Homer Bailey is going to be just fine. You can trust me, right?