Odyssey of a Potential Ace

 

 

If you’re like me, you enjoy making tortured references in print to 1970s-era sitcoms. Also, you hate suffering a flexor mass strain. It’s the worst, right? Well, last September, Homer Bailey underwent season-ending surgery to repair precisely that injury, and the rehabilitation process caused him to miss the beginning of the 2015 season, as well.

Fortunately, he only missed a brief moment in the season, and last Saturday, Homer made his 2015 debut. That debut could have been worse, but it wasn’t exactly a smashing success either. Bailey pitched 5.2 innings, surrendering five runs on nine hits and three walks. He didn’t strike out a single batter.

Wait…maybe it couldn’t have been worse.

Cincinnati sports fans—myself included—are the worldwide leaders in finding something to be worried about, but let’s try not get ahead of ourselves here. No reason to panic. Sure, the Reds did trade away Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon—one pitcher who had been pegged as a future star and another who made the National League All-Star team last year—during the offseason, with the expectation that Bailey and Mike Leake would step up and fill the void. But there’s no reason to worry: this is the same Homer Bailey who earned a six-year, $105 million contract extension prior to last season.

Although that’s precisely the reason Reds fans are worrying. If we’ve learned anything from the absurd Joey Votto/Brandon Phillips/Marty Brennaman/on-base-percentage fiasco of the last few years, it’s this: some fans will have no patience for the highest-paid players on the team.

We can argue over whether Bailey deserved that contract extension (I tend to believe that he did, but good arguments can be made to the contrary), but that money has been committed at this point. It’s not an interesting question anymore. All I’m interested in is whether Bailey can help this team, the 2015 version of the Cincinnati Reds, win baseball games. I think that he can, and I hope I’m not just going out of my way, once again, to attempt a little optimism in my weekly appearance here at the corner of Nuxhall Way and Cincinnati Magazine.

Clearly, Reds fans want—NEED—the 2013 version of Bailey, when he compiled 4.1 wins above replacement on the strength of a career-high strikeout rate. In August of that season, I argued over at ESPN that, after all the hype, Homer had finally emerged as an ace. At that time, I wrote:

In watching Homer pitch this season, one thing jumped out at me: the velocity on his four-seam fastball has been higher than I ever remembered. Turns out, my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Bailey’s average fastball has been nearly 95 mph, an increase of over 2 mph since 2011. He has always had a live arm—that’s why he was drafted in the first round out of high school, after all—but seeing him touch 97 and 98 consistently in the ninth inning of his latest no-hitter was a revelation.

That doesn’t fully explain the jump in effectiveness we’ve seen, however. After working on the pitch for a few years, Homer has finally mastered his split-fingered fastball, and Bailey has utilized the splitter more than before. There’s a good reason for that: he has induced swings-and-misses on 19.9 percent of the splitters he’s thrown. That’s a significant improvement over his rates for 2012 (15.8 percent) and 2011 (10.1 percent).

The increased usage and effectiveness of the splitter has increased his groundball rate to 49 percent. Not only is that the best rate of his career, we can’t underestimate how important it is for Bailey to be able to induce as many ground balls as possible, given his home stadium. Great American Ballpark is a home run haven, but Bailey is giving up fewer homers. It’s not a fluke.

The end result is that Bailey has demonstrated better command and has posted the highest K rate of his career, a figure that ranks in the NL top 10 (just behind teammate Mat Latos). On the flip side, Bailey is only walking two batters per nine innings (a career best in that category, too).

Unfortunately, thanks in part to neck and arm issues, Bailey struggled to a 1.6 WAR, 9-5, 3.71 ERA season in 2014. Projections for 2015 weren’t much better: 9-8, 3.70 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 1.7 WAR.

Is there any chance that we will ever see 2013 Homer again? Well, Bailey’s four-seam fastball was still good last year (95+ mph). Counterpoint: Bailey’s velocity was down (93.45 mph) in his first start of this season.

Still, most pitchers see a dip in velocity in April, as the weather is still cold and pitchers aren’t fully stretched out for the long season ahead. In fact, Bailey’s average fastball velocity was below 95 mph in both 2013 and 2014. Counterpoint: in neither season was his velocity below 94 mph, which may or may not be a measurable decline.

Whatever. Let’s talk about that splitter. As noted above, Bailey had induced whiffs on 19.9 percent of his split-fingered fastballs in that outstanding 2013 campaign; by the end of the season, that percentage had increased to 20.47 percent. Last year, despite his struggles, Bailey actually bumped that number up even higher, to 25.55 percent. He only threw 19 splitters in his first start of this season, so I’m not even going to attempt to divine anything from those numbers (his whiff rate was 15.79 percent, for the completionists among you), but it seems like the split-fingered fastball might still be effective. (And I’m not the only one who thinks that.)

In addition, Bailey’s ground ball rate was even better in 2014 than in 2013. The only areas of concern, other than the injury bug, were his strikeout rate declining (from 8.57 K/9 to 7.66 K/9) and permitting slightly more walks and home runs than he had in the season before the big contract. Otherwise, he was largely the same pitcher. The decline in WAR can be attributed almost entirely to the fact that he pitched 60+ fewer innings in 2014 than he did in 2013.

And there’s the rub: If Homer Bailey can remain healthy this season, there are many reasons to believe that he can be a pitcher who somewhat approximates the guy I tried to call an ace just over 18 months ago. But he’s already missed half of the season’s first month. I don’t know if I’m willing to bet the ranch on Homer starting 27 or 28 games the rest of the way.

Can Bailey stay healthy? We can only hope so. For the sake of the Cincinnati Reds, let’s hope Homer makes at least one start in 2015 for every dumb “Three’s Company” joke I try to get past the fine editors of this wonderful publication. If that happens, the Reds rotation should be in good shape, and I can move on to “Mork & Mindy” or “Joanie Loves Chachi.” How’s that for a teaser?

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Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. 

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