Looking to the Future with Johnny and Homer

You might have noticed: The Reds are on a roll. They’ve won six in a row and now lead the Central Division by four games over the Pirates and five games over the Cardinals, last year’s World Series champions. And the key to that success has been, somewhat surprisingly, the team’s young pitching staff.

Yesterday, in New York against the Mets, Johnny Cueto struggled early, throwing 50 pitches in the first two innings and walking pitcher Chris Young with the bases loaded to force in a run. But after a bout with dizziness that sent the trainer out to the mound, Cueto settled down, lasting seven innings and giving up just that one run to go with eight strikeouts.

Homer Bailey followed a similar script the night before. He worked his way into and out of several jams, giving up just one run despite a bevy of base runners and quite a few long drives by the Mets that were caught within inches of the fence. In the end, Bailey worked eight innings and gave up one run on six hits, striking out three.

Cueto is now 8-3 with a 2.31 ERA. Bailey is 5-4 with a 4.03 ERA. According to some member of the Brennaman family whom I heard speaking recently, Dusty Baker has hinted that if the playoffs started tomorrow (which they don’t, not by a long shot), Johnny and Homer would likely be his top two starters.

Certainly, you could argue that Bronson Arroyo is more deserving that Bailey or that by the end of the year, Mat Latos will emerge as an ace. But I think a more interesting question is this: Can Cueto and Bailey sustain their success?

I’ve got two conflicting theories about this, one based the sort of old-school baseball wisdom that you’re likely to hear from Dusty and one based on statistical analysis.

The old-school wisdom, which tends to favor narrative, tells me these guys will continue to produce. Last year, when he returned from injury, Cueto stopped “throwing” and started “pitching.” This year, Bailey is going through that same transformation. Sure, they give up a few base runners, but these guys are “gamers” who step up in the “clutch.” They bear down when the pressure is on, getting the outs when they need them. I could probably go on.

The numbers don’t exactly indicate impending doom, but they do tell a slightly different story. Cueto gives up a lot of fly balls and is mediocre at striking hitters out. So far this year, only 6 percent of the fly balls he’s surrendered have gone for home runs. That’s an unusually low rate, one that is likely to climb. Cueto is good, but he might not be this good. Bailey, on the other hand, hasn’t been so lucky. He gives up even more fly balls than Cueto does, and 11 percent of them have gone for home runs. He’s already given up 11 homers (insert pun here) in 13 starts. His BABIP and strand rates, two other stats used to predict future performance, are also roughly in line with league average. But like Cueto, Bailey isn’t a big punch-out guy, which is one reason that he’s often flirting with trouble.

So what’s the takeaway? Cueto and Bailey are both fly ball pitchers will middle-of-the-road strikeout rates. That’s a scary formula. But so far this season—whether through luck or force of will—they’ve been able to make it work. And with a little more luck, they might just be able to keep it going. You might want to cross your fingers.

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