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One month ago, Walt Jocketty admitted that it would be difficult to lock up Homer Bailey to an extension: “He would be probably the one guy that’s going to be the most difficult because of how well he’s done and where he’s at in this service class.” Five days later, Ken Rosenthal reported that “Three times this offseason—from three different sources—I heard that Reds right-hander Homer Bailey wanted out of Cincinnati.” Bailey denied it, but no matter how much he likes chili on his spaghetti, a 9-X system of electing city council members, and the nation’s second-best libraries, an extension seemed unlikely this close to his free agency. The leverage was all his. And yet, here we are, and the Reds have achieved a pretty good deal.
Ben Lindbergh is fond of noting when pitchers sign long deals that the unpredictability and uncertainty of pitchers’ arms makes for a lot of repetitive caveating. Sure, Bailey is good, but little of what we know about him helps us project the state of his shoulder and elbow five years from now. It’s difficult to analyze a pitcher’s future based on his present. But no less challenging is analyzing the pitcher’s present based on his past.
If Bailey were a hitter, it’d be much simpler. Some huge portion of a hitter’s ability is in his neurology, his ability to identify pitches and decide instantly what to do about them (and, further, not be terrified of the danger involved). That’s presumably not changing, so his past gives us a good indication of his limits. Another huge portion of his value comes from his ability to run and throw enough to play certain positions well; running and throwing don’t fluctuate much (though, of course, in one-year samples particularly, overall defensive value does).
So if Bailey were a hitter, we’d likely conclude that the former top prospect had hit a neurological wall a bit earlier than expected, that he was enjoying a nice bump from entering his physical prime, but that regression was in order. We’d be slightly more generous because of his high-upside prospect past, we might be a bit influenced by feature articles on his offseason work with some swing guru, and we wouldn’t rule out that there would briefly be downballot MVP votes imminent. But most likely we’d call him a three-win player this year, two in a couple, one by the end of this contract. The numbers tell his story. Carlos Pena seems like the right comp on the high end; Casey Kotchman on the low.
Bailey’s past is similar to Pena’s at a similar age. His path, though, isn’t. He’s gone through so many iterations as a pitcher that it’s hard to determine how much of the former top-five prospect is still in there. It’s hard to determine how much of the 2008 disaster is in there. It’s hard to determine, even, how much of the guy who threw his first no-hitter at the end of a successful 2012 season is still in there.
Physically, he throws a mile and a half faster than he did in 2011, with all of his pitches. He’s bigger and stronger, having shown up to spring training in 2012 in the BSOHL. His mechanics are different: According to Doug Thorburn, who handled Bailey’s fake arbitration case last winter, Bailey abandoned a closed stride that was making it difficult for him to hit glove-side targets, and improved his posture. The latter, Doug wrote, made it easier to repeat his delivery and helped explain his suddenly excellent walk rate after years of poor control.
The narrative of his makeup has also changed dramatically. An incomplete list of words and phrases used to describe him in news articles, feature stories and BP comments when he was younger:
His arm and head weren't always in sync; Abrasive; Difficult to reach; Hard-headed; Opinionated; Butted heads with the Reds about his workout regimen; Aloof; Cocky; Ebby Calvin LaLoosh impression; Appears disinterested; Indifferent; Pitch(es) to the radar gun; An exercise in frustration.
He’s still abrasive to reporters, and probably a bit cocky and aloof. But around 2010, a new word starting showing up in every profile: “mature.” As in, “Mature now, Bailey disappeared into the tunnel between innings, quietly sitting in front of an electric fan. There, he could cool off – both physically and, yes, mentally.” It’s not knowable how much this matters, of course, but maturity is neither the sort of thing that probably can’t change—like a hitter’s ability to pick up pitches—or that goes steadily and predictably in one direction, like running speed.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly—or perhaps least; who knows?—there’s the repertoire. A hitter might develop a bit more plate discipline or a bit more of a power stroke, but a pitcher can almost reinvent himself by learning a new pitch. Ben noted last year that Bailey “has radically altered his pitch selection since last season, replacing many of his four-seamers with sinkers and splitters.” Here’s the usage pattern, which won’t blow you away:
That doesn’t look radical. Almost every pitcher changes usage patterns by a few percent each year, particularly when it comes to two- and four-seam fastballs. But while the totals aren’t radical, the game-by-game usages are. In 2012, Bailey used the two-seamer a few times a game, every game. Once, 34 percent of his fastballs were two-seamers, and five other times at least 20 percent were, but that’s as extreme as he got. The two-seamer was a supporting pitch.
In 2013, that changed. On May 19th, he threw seven scoreless against the Phillies—and 81 percent of his fastballs were two-seamers. Thrice, he threw more two-seamers than four-seamers, and in six starts his two-seamers made up at least 35 percent of his heaters. On the flip side: On Aug. 28th he threw seven scoreless against the Cardinals—and every one of his 55 fastballs was a four-seamer. When he struck out 12 Pirates on July 21st, all but one of his 71 fastballs were four-seamers.
So while it doesn’t seem radical to see him throw around five more two-seamers per start, on average, it is radical that he can essentially be two different pitchers, depending on which pitch is working, depending on which team he’s facing—and be dominant either way.
Some combination of all of these things—the physical growth that preceded a bump in velocity; the mental development that may or may not have made him more adaptable to executing a pitching plan; the development of two-seamer and splitter that feature in his repertoire—have turned his two-seamer into one of the game’s best fastballs.
Dan Brooks has added to Brooks Baseball a new way of comparing pitchers’ pitch usage and results to league averages. Bailey’s two-seamer, in 2012, produced a whiff rate slightly worse than the league average right-handed starter’s. On the 20-80 scouting scale, it was (statistically) a 48 fastball. In 2013, by contrast, it was a 73 fastball—more than two standard deviations better than the league’s average. Of Bailey’s five pitches, four—all but the slider—produced a swinging strike rate at least one standard deviation better than average in 2013. His fly-ball rate, meanwhile, dropped from 2012 to 2013 on all five of his pitches—though he did allow more line drives.
So, in ways big and small, it’s hard to identify Bailey as anything more or less than what he is right now, at this moment. Or, at least, what he was when last we saw him: A solid no. 2 or 3 starter, with the 21st-best FIP in baseball (just ahead of Yu Darvish and Justin Verlander (though just behind Lance Lynn and Bartolo Colon)). A pitcher three years removed from his last throwing injury, and a pitcher who can do two of the most difficult and important things a pitcher can do: throw strikes, and get whiffs.
And that’s why, when Ben asked baseball insiders this month to choose between Bailey and Tanaka, it was
the closest showdown. Even the insiders on (Tanaka’s) side suggested the competition was tight…. The Bailey voters in the group believed that the stats should be similar but marked down Tanaka due to the greater uncertainty that surrounds him. “[Bailey has] already learned to pitch effectively in MLB,” one scout said.
Tanaka cost the Yankees $175 million over a seven-year commitment. The Reds will get Bailey for less than 60 percent of that. The Reds probably could have justified spending $10M, $20M, maybe $30M more. As it turned out, locking Bailey up wasn’t that difficult after all.
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