Homer Bailey is pitching like an ace. In his seventh professional season, everything has come together for the one-time fifth-best prospect in baseball. It’s been a long rise to the top for Bailey, who didn’t have a sub-4.00 ERA until his sixth professional season. While his 2012 performance was a major step forward, Bailey has managed to get even better in 2013. Through 90 innings this season, Bailey has nearly matched his season-high in WAR. His 2.68 FIP rates 11th among qualified starters. Bailey may have taken a while to reach meet his lofty expectations, but the wait is well worth it given his current performance.
Many pitchers would have been content with Bailey’s 2012 numbers, but Bailey couldn’t have been fully satisfied based on some changes he’s made this year. If you had to nitpick two areas where Bailey could have improved in 2012, it would have been upping his strikeout rate and cutting his high home run rate. He’s managed to meet both challenges.
Asking a pitcher to start striking out more hitters isn’t usually a fair request. But whether through luck, or hard work, Bailey has been able to help himself in that category. Some of his increase in strikeouts can be attributed to a jump in velocity. Bailey’s average fastball velocity has jumped from 93.30 mph to 94.22 mph this season. Bailey chose the same offseason training program he used prior to the 2012 season, which focuses on shoulder health. He also reportedly entered 2013 with 10 extra pounds of muscle so he would hold up over the course of the season.
On top of that he’s also utilized a different pitch selection. He’s relied less on his four-seam fastball, mixing in more sinkers and splitters. Brett Talley pointed this out a month ago. This change has played a large role in Bailey’s improvement in both areas. The splitter has been a decent strikeout pitch for Bailey in the past, but it’s become an elite weapon for him in 2013. Bailey’s whiff rate with the pitch has jumped from 15.77% to 21.72%. Combine that with the fact that he’s throwing it more often, his usage has jumped from 9.30% to 14.52%, and that explains some of the jump in strikeout rate.
While throwing the sinker more hasn’t helped as much in the strikeout department, it has helped Bailey increase his ground ball rate. Bailey’s ground ball rate has jumped to a career-high 49.2%, almost a 5% improvement on last year. It’s probably not a coincidence that, for the first time in his career, Bailey is suppressing home runs at an above-average rate. Throwing the splitter more also helps in this area, as it has the highest ground ball rate of all his pitches this year.
The change in repertoire seems like a deliberate play by Bailey to cut down on his home run problem. After last season’s step forward, Bailey did not get complacent, he studied his game and worked even harder. With Johnny Cueto sidelined for much of the year, the Reds needed a pitcher capable of posting ace-level numbers. They haven’t missed a beat behind the improved Bailey.
*As usual, much of the research used here comes from BrooksBaseball.net.
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