“It” being the long awaited breakout. After coming up through the Reds system as one of the top pitching prospects in the game, Homer Bailey was supposed to eventually lead the team’s rotation. But up until 2011, he had never posted an ERA below 4.43 and hadn’t pitched more than 132.0 innings. Through parts of five seasons, Bailey had been a disappointment and many were ready to give up on him ever becoming what had once been expected. Then 2012 happened and Bailey finally had that true breakout year we all thought he was capable of.
But, was this really a genuine breakout, or was this just better (or more neutral) luck? Well, if you ask FIP, xFIP and SIERA, he has actually been nearly the same pitcher for the past three seasons. The only thing that has changed this season is that he allowed fewer hits on balls in play and he stranded a couple more base runners. Bailey is a great example of why these expected ERA metrics are so important to monitor. They all suggested that Bailey already had the skills to post an ERA below 4.00, and it was just a matter of better defense and fortune that would lead to its manifestation. I was a fan of Bailey this year for this very reason.
So, this is the same Bailey that we have become accustomed to, just with better outward results. But can his skills improve further? I think they could. Over the first three months of the season, Bailey posted an uninspiring 6.1 K/9. Then something clicked and over the final three months, that strikeout rate surged to 8.1. In looking over his PITCHf/x data, his velocity generally remained the same during both halves. However, he altered his pitch selection a bit to a mix that would normally lend itself to more strikeouts.
Over the first half of the season, Bailey threw his fastball, both the two-seamer and four-seamer, about 65% of the time. That rate dropped to about 62% of the time over the final three months, which is not significant, but noteworthy nonetheless. He replaced those fastballs with sliders, which is considered his best pitch. He increased that pitch’s usage from 16% to 19% and in both halves it produced the highest whiff rate of his repertoire. Now that doesn’t seem like a big enough different to have led to a jump in strikeout rate of two batters per nine. I would guess some of the discrepancy was due to the randomness of sequencing and Bailey would have been due some sort of a rebound even without altering his pitch mix.
Aside from the potential for a higher strikeout rate, Bailey’s control has been fantastic the last two seasons. In 2011, his F-Strike% was nicely above the league average, but this year it spiked even higher and actually ranked seventh among all starters in baseball. Once a power pitcher with spotty control, he has morphed into a pitcher with power that also possesses pinpoint command. While I would not project a third straight season with a 2.25 BB/9, I wouldn’t expect too much of a jump in that walk rate. Last, Bailey induced the highest percentage of ground balls since his debut in 2007. This is very important when you call Great American Ballpark home, a park that significantly inflates home run production.
Although he is coming off a breakout season, Bailey does seem to have a bit more upside left in him. He posted an 8.3 K/9 back in 2010 and he does appear to still have the ability to push his strikeout rate back toward 8.0 for a full season. Combine that strikeout ability with sterling control and a slight ground ball tilt, and I think Bailey has a strong chance of maintaining a sub-4.00 ERA.