What Makes Homer Bailey's Stuff so Unhittable?
Cincinnati Reds' right-hander Homer Bailey joined an exclusive club that includes just 27 other pitchers in Major League Baseball history when he threw the second no-hitter of his career on Tuesday night against the San Francisco Giants.
In fact, the last two no-hitters in baseball have come from Bailey. His first one was last September against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Looking at the box score from both of Bailey's no-hitters, it is remarkable how similar they are. Against the Pirates he had 10 strikeouts, one walk, allowed two baserunners (the other came on a Scott Rolen error) and threw 74 strikes on 115 pitches.
Tuesday night, Bailey had nine strikeouts, one walk (the only baserunner he allowed) and threw 74 strikes on 109 pitches.
After struggling to find himself as a young, highly-touted starting pitcher, Bailey has really come into his own the last two years. He may never turn into the ace it was believed he would be when the Reds took him with the seventh pick in the 2004 draft, but the 27-year-old is turning into a very good, reliable 200-inning workhorse.
But what is it about Bailey that has taken him from looking like a potential journeyman, back-end starter to throwing the last two no-hitters in baseball?
Let's get the most obvious answer out of the way before we really dive into the stuff Bailey has used. Despite what some people might have you believe, there is no skill to throwing a no-hitter. It is really a lot of dumb luck with a little skill thrown in.
It helps when you are facing a bad offensive team, or at least a lineup that struggles to put the ball in play. Last year's Pirates, save for Andrew McCutchen, were a terrible offensive team. They were 10th in the National League in runs scored and 14th in average and on-base percentage.
The Giants have been in a prolonged slump that has dropped them into last place in the National League West. They scored the fewest runs in the NL last month (90).
Saying a pitcher has no-hit stuff is easy after they get it, but there really is no way to predict when one will happen. What happens if Joey Votto doesn't make a throw to third base that gets Gregor Blanco out because Bailey was late getting off the mound to cover first base when Posey hit a soft grounder?
Plus, if you want to know the randomness of a no-hitter, keep in mind that Philip Humber, who owns a 5.34 career ERA and is currently in Triple-A, threw a perfect game for the Chicago White Sox in 2012.
How often do you hear a pitcher, whether they are succeeding or failing in a start, talk about the ability to throw the fastball for strikes? You have to be able to pitch off the heater in order to keep opposing hitters off balance.
In his two no-hitters Bailey has been masterful at pounding the zone with his fastball. He was clearly going to it when he needed to make a big pitch on Tuesday night.
According to Dave Schoenfield of ESPN, Bailey threw 40 pitches over the final three innings on Tuesday night, and 34 of them were four-seam fastballs. That is both trust in your best pitch and understanding that the opponents are not going to catch up to it.
In a great battle with Pablo Sandoval that lasted nine pitches, Bailey threw eight heaters and got the Panda to strike out on a high heater to end the seventh inning.
Against Pittsburgh last year, Bailey used a similar formula to finish is no-hitter. He threw 26 pitches in the last two innings, 22 fastballs and just six of them were out of the zone.
One interesting note about Bailey's fastball is how much better it was during this no-hitter than last year's. In the game against the Pirates, the heater averaged 91.64 mph and the highest clocked pitch was 94.42 (h/t Brooks Baseball).
On Tuesday night, Bailey looked like Matt Harvey. His fastball averaged 94.54 mph and was clocked as high as 97.69 (h/t Brooks Baseball). That isn't an entirely new development, as Bailey's heater has the 10th-highest average velocity this year (93.5).
Establishing the off-speed stuff
What's remarkable about how Bailey has gotten two no-hitters in 10 months is how he basically gets away with just the fastball. Typically a starting pitcher, especially a right hander, has to have three pitches to consistently get outs against a Major League lineup.
But Bailey, in brilliant fashion, has been able to just occasionally mix in a breaking ball to keep the hitters off the fastball all the time. His go-to breaking ball on Tuesday night was the slider. Of the 24 non-fastballs Bailey threw against the Giants, 20 of them were sliders.
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That speaks to the evolution of Bailey as a pitcher, because when he was drafted and coming up through the minor leagues his best off-speed pitch was a knockout curveball. He still throws the hook almost as often as the slider (12.3% to 12.9%), but it is clear what has become his bread-and-butter breaking ball when the situation dictates.
And when you are throwing between 94-97 with the fastball and getting a lot of swings and misses with it, you don't have to throw a lot of off-speed pitches to have success.
Even in his first no-hitter against Pittsburgh last year, Bailey was living off the fastball, but since the velocity wasn't as good as it was on Tuesday night, he was forced to throw a lot more off-speed pitches. He threw more non-fastballs in the first five innings of the game against the Pirates (26) than he did the entire game against San Francisco.
In total, Bailey threw 35 off-speed pitches in the first no-hitter, but there was a much more even mix of sliders (17), curveballs (10) and changeups (8).
When you look at the pitches he threw late in the game, when the pressure was mounting, the righty turned to the slider more than any other off-speed pitch. He threw seven non-fastballs in the final three innings, six of them were sliders.
Being able to mix and match pitches, especially later in games after the opponent has had time to see what you are throwing, is the key to finishing a no-hitter. Bailey has been masterful at doing that in throwing MLB's last two no-nos.
The plan of attack
When you are watching a game, the announcers will often talk about the way a pitcher is attacking a hitter. Sometimes it is difficult to see exactly what the plan is from at-bat to at-bat, but looking at the way Bailey attacked the Giants on Tuesday and Pirates last September, it is easy to see what he wanted to do.
As a singular point of reference, we are going to look at what Bailey did against Brandon Belt on Tuesday and Pedro Alvarez last year.
First with Belt, who has been hitting well after a dreadful April. Bailey knew that when you are going up against a hot hitter, the worst thing you can do is show them a fastball. So he started the first at-bat with a slider, then gave Belt a fastball at 95 that he swung through before going back to the slider that started on the inside part of the plate before moving onto the outline of the batter's box for a swinging strike.
In Belt's next plate appearance, even after seeing the slider twice in his first at-bat, got aggressive on the first pitch slider and hit a pop-up on the infield that traveled about 15 feet in front of home plate.
In his final at-bat of the night in the top of the eighth, after seeing three sliders in his first two at-bats, Belt went up to the plate hacking again. Bailey gave him another slider, though this one hung a little more on the plate than he would have liked, and Belt lined out to right field.
You could tell that the Reds and Bailey wanted to exploit Belt's eagerness and make quick out, but it was clear that he wasn't going to get a fastball to hit. That was a masterful job of setting up and taking advantage of a situation by Bailey that paid off huge because he only threw five pitches total to Belt in three at-bats.
Looking back to Alvarez, who has always been an aggressive hacker ready to chase anything and everything, Bailey worked him an entirely different way than he did Belt.
Alvarez had three at-bats in that game last September, saw 14 pitches and only two were off-speed. That is a dangerous tactic against a free swinger with power like Alvarez, but Bailey also knew that he had the luxury of being able to throw the ball anywhere with a great chance of getting a swings and misses.
Bailey showed Alvarez nothing but fastballs in their first battle in the second inning, with Bailey eventually winning the battle by painting the inside corner with a fastball. In the second at-bat, Bailey did show a changeup after getting ahead 1-2 hoping to get Alvarez to swing over the top of it. When that didn't work, the Reds starter elevated a fastball for the strikeout.
Then in the eighth inning, possibly sensing that Alvarez was going to catch up to his heater after showing three straight in the 91-92 range, Bailey went to the slider. Alvarez did put a good swing on it, lining it to the opposite field, but right at Scott Rolen for the out.
In both cases with Belt and Alvarez, Bailey showed exactly what he wanted to do in getting both men out three times. That is the difference between a starting pitcher and reliever, who can just rare back and fire without any caution because they know that the guy in the box is only going to have to see them once.
Put it all together and you get two no-hitters
Everything from luck to having a specific plan against each individual hitter and being able to execute that plan is what you need to throw a no-hitter. Bailey has been more fortunate than others with dominant stuff who don't even have one no-no to pull the amazing feat off twice in just 10 months.
What the differences between the no-hitters, from the increased velocity to sharper all-around stuff and poise on the mound, suggests is that Bailey has evolved right before our very eyes. He may never be consistent enough to be a true No. 1 or 2 starter, but he is much closer to that level now than he was at this time last year.
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