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Where Have You Gone, Homer Bailey?

Remember “Homer Bailey, top pitching prospect”? It wasn’t that long ago that scouts were drooling over the lanky Texan, whose mid-90’s heat and hammer curve impressed Cincinnati brass enough to use the 7th overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft on him. Dubbing him the “undisputed class among the nation’s high school crop”, Baseball America extolled his virtues: Bailey possessed “the best fastball (92-96 mph), the best righthanded breaking ball (a hard downer curveball), the best command and the most polish among high schoolers in the draft.”

While that was certainly a heaping helping of praise, the La Grange native lived up to his flame-throwing billing in the earlier stages of his career. Bailey made his full-season debut in 2005, with Dayton of the Low-A Midwest League. Bailey spit fire in 103.2 frames for the Dragons, punching out 10.9 batters per nine innings. He was just as likely to burn himself as opponents, however, with 5.38 BB/9. Despite the strike-zone hiccups, BA named Bailey the 38th-best prospect in the minors (1st in the Cincy system) prior to the 2006 season.

Bailey began his ’06 campaign with Sarasota of the High-A Florida State League, tossing 70.2 innings for the club. The 6-4, 205 pounder continued to maul batters at the lower levels (10.06 K/9), but he also nearly halved his walk rate, issuing 2.8 free passes per nine innings. The sharper command led to a shiny 3.21 FIP. Pumping gas and showing better polish, Bailey was bumped up to the Southern League, where he pitched 68 innings for the Lookouts. Homer got lucky with homers (0.13 HR/9) and he walked more batters (3.71 BB/9), but his 10.19 K/9 served notice that the Texan could miss bats at the upper levels. BA really showed Bailey some love that offseason, as he was named the 5th-best prospect in the game.

With such lofty accolades, Bailey entered 2007 with Sistine Chapel-high expectations. He was sent to AAA Louisville, where some cracks began to appear in said chapel. His K rate was good, not great (7.89 K/9 in 67.1 IP), but he walked 4.28 per nine, suggesting that he needed some additional time to hone his craft in the minors. However, Bailey was summoned to Cincinnati in early June, where he struggled to keep his head above water. Bailey’s K/BB was an ugly 1-to-1, as he both whiffed and walked 5.56 hitters per nine innings in 45.1 frames of work. Utilizing a 92.4 MPH fastball (thrown 71.3% of the time) and that patented mid-70’s curve (14.7%), Bailey posted a 4.92 FIP. Despite the rocky introduction, few seemed worried about Homer’s long-term potential: he checked in as the 9th-best talent in the minors, per BA.

Returned to Louisville to kick off 2008, Bailey improved somewhat, though his performance fell under the level that one might expect from a top-of-the-line farm product. The 22 year-old posted rates of 7.76 K/9 and 3.72 BB/9, with a 3.96 FIP in 111.1 IP. He got his second shot with the Reds during the summer, but things continued to go awry in the show. In 36.1 innings, he didn’t fool many batters (4.46 K/9), nor was he stingy with the walks (4.21 B/9). His FIP was a Boeing-level 6.41, as Homer lived up to his name with 1.98 big flys per nine innings. His once-vaunted velocity was mundane (91.5 MPH) and mechanically-minded analysts were none too pleased with that they saw.

Bailey has barely managed 5 K’s per nine in his short major league career. Drawing conclusions off of 80-some innings is a terrible idea, but he has had issues putting hitters away in pitcher’s counts. Courtesy of the insanely useful Baseball-Reference, we find that Bailey has surrendered a .287/.359/.440 line with two strikes between 2007 and 2008. For comparison, the NL average in two-strike counts in ’08 was .185/.256/.284. While the average NL pitcher turned batters into Tony Pena Jr. with two strikes, Bailey allows them to imitate Mark DeRosa.

Heading into 2009, Bailey has very little shot of cracking the Reds’ starting rotation. That might be for the best, considering his tenuous mechanics and pitch sequencing suggest that he could use some extra seasoning. It would be silly to write off Bailey, but some of the shine is definitely off of his star.