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Wednesday, August 7, 2013
Homer Bailey has turned into an ace

By Chad Dotson

Homer Bailey
Ignore the 6-10 record: Homer Bailey has been one of the NL's best pitchers this season.
Clayton Kershaw. Adam Wainwright. Matt Harvey. Homer Bailey. Can you pick out which of these names is not like the others?

Three of the pitchers on that list were 2013 National League All-Stars. Kershaw has won a Cy Young Award and finished second in the balloting another time. Wainwright has finished in the top three in Cy Young voting on two occasions. Harvey, the youngest pitcher in that group, started this year's All-Star Game, and may be the leading candidate to win the 2013 NL Cy Young Award.

The fourth name just might be the most underrated pitcher in all of baseball. That's right: Homer Bailey.

Homer was not an All-Star in 2013. He's never been an All-Star. He's never been named on a single ballot for the Cy Young Award during his career. He's currently 6-10 with a 3.55 ERA entering Wednesday's start against the A's, numbers that don't particularly jump out at you.

Yet, by some metrics, only three pitchers in the National League -- the aforementioned Kershaw, Wainwright, and Harvey -- have been better than Bailey this season.

David Dewitt Bailey, of course, was selected by the Reds in the first round of the 2004 amateur draft. At one time, Bailey was considered the top pitching prospect in baseball (depending upon who you asked). After five up-and-down years in Cincinnati, Homer took a big step forward last year, and everyone knows about the two no-hitters Bailey has thrown within the last year. Still, he isn't exactly a household name.

In 2013 -- despite that 6-10 record -- Bailey has shined. He is fourth among NL pitchers in Wins Above Replacement, having accumulated 3.5 fWAR, which already surpasses his previous season-high. When you look at fielding independent pitching numbers, you see that Bailey's FIP of 2.79 is fourth-best among NL starters, and compares favorably to the big three of Harvey, Wainwright and Kershaw. We can dig further into some of the advanced metrics (SIERA, anyone?), but let's not get too deep down this rabbit hole. Suffice to say that Bailey has a great case for being mentioned in the same breath as the best pitchers in the NL, as far as 2013 performance is concerned.

How did Bailey make this leap? In watching Homer pitch this season, one thing jumped out at me: the velocity on his four-seam fastball has been higher than I ever remembered. Turns out, my eyes weren't deceiving me. Bailey's average fastball has been nearly 95 mph, an increase of over 2 mph since 2011. He has always had a live arm -- that's why he was drafted in the first round out of high school, after all -- but seeing him touch 97 and 98 consistently in the ninth inning of his latest no-hitter was a revelation.

That doesn't fully explain the jump in effectiveness we've seen, however. After working on the pitch for a few years, Homer has finally mastered his split-fingered fastball, and Bailey has utilized the splitter more than before. There's a good reason for that: he has induced swings-and-misses on 19.9 percent of the splitters he's thrown. That's a significant improvement over his rates for 2012 (15.8 percent) and 2011 (10.1 percent).

The increased usage and effectiveness of the splitter has increased his groundball rate to 49 percent. Not only is that the best rate of his career, we can't underestimate how important it is for Bailey to be able to induce as many ground balls as possible, given his home stadium. Great American Ballpark is a home run haven, but Bailey is giving up fewer homers. It's not a fluke.

The end result is that Bailey has demonstrated better command and has posted the highest K rate of his career, a figure that ranks in the NL top 10 (just behind teammate Mat Latos). On the flip side, Bailey is only walking two batters per nine innings (a career best in that category, too).

The Homer Bailey story is an intriguing one, and it is cautionary for many in the Twitter Age who want to give up on young players too quickly. Bailey has a live arm and, after a few early fits and starts as a minor leaguer, is reported to have an excellent work ethic. The Reds are to be commended for having patience with him through his early struggles.

I've already mentioned the no-hitters, and Homer was certainly dominant in those games, but Homer's coming-out party as a stud pitcher probably occurred last October. In Game 3 of the National League Division Series, Bailey pitched seven remarkable innings, allowing one run on one hit, while striking out 10 Giants. (In an alternate universe, the Reds would have scored a couple of runs and completed a three-game NLDS sweep.)

Homer didn't get the win that night, but he gave everyone a glimpse of what to expect from him in 2013. If, as seems likely, the Reds end up in a one-game wild-card playoff this October, Bailey may be the guy they line up to start.

Dare I say it? The oft-maligned Homer Bailey may legitimately be an ace, finally. I'm not sure anyone saw this coming.

Chad Dotson writes about the Reds at Redleg Nation.