When the Cincinnati Reds signed Homer Bailey to a six-year, $106 million extension, they might as well have gotten him a T-shirt that said what they really thought of him: "One of the Best Pitchers in Baseball."
So far in 2014, however, Bailey has been anything but. That's our cue to ask the sort of question we love to ask in times like these: Is it time to panic?
Spoiler alert: No, not yet. There are no good reasons to, anyway.
I'll grant that it certainly doesn't look good now. After struggling in his first two starts of 2014, Bailey was roughed up for five earned runs on eight hits in five innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday. Four of the hits he gave up left the yard.
One silver lining, however, is that Bailey was hardly the only pitcher giving up dingers at Great American Ballpark. Before the game was suspended after six innings due to rain, the Pirates and Reds had already combined for a park record 10 homers.
And while the four homers Bailey gave up came in separate sets of back-to-back jobs in separate innings, at least he managed to strike out the side in both innings.
This is another silver lining, and part of an even bigger silver lining at that. The strikeouts referenced above were six of the nine Bailey racked up. That's next to zero walks, which could mean he was officially over the rust he accumulated thanks to a groin injury in spring training.
"For me, missing those 2 1/2 weeks without mound time in Spring Training kind of came back and bit me today," Bailey said after his April 3 debut against St. Louis, via MLB.com. "You could definitely tell I wasn't sharp. Lots of walks, just a lot of pitches that missed by an inch or two."
We already have enough glimmers of hope that Bailey's going to turn things around, but there are even more to be found when looking at his 2014 body of work as a whole.
We're going to start by looking at the following mix of basic-to-less-basic stats from FanGraphs:
|Homer Bailey's 2014 versus 2012-2013|
From left to right, what we're looking at here are: strikeouts per nine, walks per nine, ground-ball percentage, batting average on balls in play, home runs per fly balls, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching and Skill-Interactive ERA.
Though much is owed to his performance on Monday night, Bailey has started the season with a strong strikeout rate and a walk rate that could be worse. His ground-ball habit is continuing an upward trend. Given that there's no better formula for a pitcher than racking up strikeouts, limiting walks and keeping the ball on the ground, this is all good stuff.
Bailey's BABIP and HR/FB rates are less awesome, but maybe you don't need me to tell you that both are bound to come down.
It's especially easy to say that with BABIP, as it's a stat that tends to be ruled by whatever's normal. In Bailey's case, that's a BABIP under .300. Odds are the same will eventually be true this year.
Home runs are a trickier, as a pitcher has more influence in forming his luck in that department than he does in singles, doubles and triples. In Bailey's case, he's hurt himself by missing his target with five of the six home runs he's given up this year.
Here's the point illustrated with green dots for the intended targets and red dots where the pitches ended up:
Note: The one exception is the home run Bailey allowed to Gaby Sanchez on Monday, which was actually a solid pitch.
Still, it's not as if all six of the home runs Bailey has given up have been moonshots. A couple just cleared the wall. In the long run, some of those long drives are going to hit the wall, and Bailey's HR/FB will come down as a result. It will be his luck evening out.
Which leads us to those last two columns. What xFIP does is estimate what a pitcher's ERA should be based on strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches and home runs with an assumption that his home run rate is not what it seems. SIERA is similar, except it actually tries to evaluate a pitcher's balls in play.
What xFIP and SIERA agree on, in a nutshell: There's no way that Bailey has actually been as bad as his 8.16 ERA.
You can consider this your umpteenth reminder that early-season results are very rarely what they seem. Sometimes, things are too good to be true. Other times, they're too bad to be true. The latter would appear to be the case with Bailey.
Beyond his bad luck, there doesn't appear to be anything significantly wrong with Bailey. Via FanGraphs, here's a look at the velocity he entered his Monday start with:
|Homer Bailey's Velocity|
The only thing that stands out as a red flag here is how Bailey entered Monday's start throwing his slider a bit softer than usual. Brooks Baseball can show that this has corresponded with a drop in the pitch's ability to miss bats, which is less than ideal.
Still, the important thing is that Bailey's other velocity numbers weren't suggesting something was amiss. That makes it from possible to optimistic that Bailey's slider will regain some velocity.
I'm also not sure there's anything to worry about when it comes to Bailey's mechanics. His vertical release point is only slightly out of whack compared to where it was at the end of 2013, and his horizontal release point is about where it was earlier in 2013.
In other words: Bailey doesn't appear to be throwing from a completely alien arm slot, which is a solid indicator that his arm and shoulder are in good shape.
The time to be worried about a nine-figure contract is when there are either A) clear signs that a player is declining or B) injured. Neither appears to be the case with Bailey, so neither the Reds nor their fans should give up on the notion of him regaining the form that earned him his contract in the first place.
And that, indeed, was the form of one of the best pitchers in baseball.
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