Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Homer Bailey

There must be something in the water in Texas, or maybe it's the hormones in the all those cattle. Either way, it seems like every young fireballer comes from Texas or at least has ties to the state in some way. A short list of Texas pitchers includes Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens (originally from Ohio, but pitched for the University of Texas), Kerry Wood, Josh Beckett, Andy Pettitte (born in Louisiana, but went to high school in Texas) and Colt Griffin (the #9 pick in 2001 best known for being the first high school pitcher to officially hit 100 mph on a radar gun in competition). There's tons of other hard throwing pitchers that have come from the state, and it really makes me wonder if they're doing something different in Texas that the rest of us don't know about. Recently, another young flamethrower by the name of Homer Bailey has gone all the way from pitching in high school in LaGrange, Texas to starting for the Cincinatti Reds major league ball club in two short years.

David "Homer" Bailey has been a highly sought after pitcher ever since his high school days when he was just your average F-150 driving, cowboy boot wearing, wild boar hunting teenager. With a fastball in the mid-90's, smooth mechanics, and a tenacity on the mound that would make any Texan cowboy proud, Bailey has received rave reviews from scouts at every level and the Reds have him slated to be one of their top pitchers for the next several years, if not longer. He coasted through the minors, but at the age of 21, Bailey started 9 games for the Reds, giving up 29 earned runs in 45 innings, striking out 28 as well as walking 28. It wasn't what some had expected from him, but with youth on his side and a Reds rotation in need of a boost, there is still plenty of support behind Bailey, and the Reds will give him every opportunity to prove himself.

When Bailey pitches he has a very confident, business like way of carrying himself while he's on the mound without coming off as a show boat or primo uomo (I just learned that a 'primo uomo' is the male equivalent of a 'prima donna'). It seems that he's got all the right tools, both physically and mentally, to be great. But despite all that, I'm not a Bailey believer. I have several issues with his approach to pitching, both mechanically and mentally, and I haven't seen any evidence that Bailey is gaining a sense of what he really wants to accomplish with each pitch. I'll try to explain these things in more detail.

First, I'll start with Bailey's mechanics. From the stretch, I think he's as smooth as butter, but from the wind up I think he's got a lot of wasted motion. Here's a look at him from the stretch.

I really like his tempo to the plate and his forward motion with his lower body. He doesn't load a lot of pressure on his arm, and his follow through is fairly complete allowing him to reduce pressure on his upper body even more with only a minimal amount of resistance from his front leg. It looks like a very compact, efficient motion. The only thing I would want Bailey to do differently is to use his torso more just as he's releasing the ball, tightening his abdominal region and pulling his upper body forward just a bit. It could add a little snap to his motion that could produce better velocity efficiency and sharper rotation on his pitches.

If I were to give Bailey's motion from the stretch a letter grade, I'd probably give it a solid 'A'. But if I had to grade his motion from the wind up, I don't know what I would give him because there isn't much I like about it.

I don't like how he raises his hands because it seems like a useless motion that at best helps him keep his rhythm. A wind up should be used to create momentum into a forward and downward movement towards the plate and Bailey doesn't do anything with his early arm motions except obscure his own view of his target. If you want to see a good early hand lift motion, watch how Jake Peavy brings his hands down in motion with his initial leg movement towards the plate.

Just as his hands and his knees are about to meet, he drops them both down and out towards the batter, creating perfect momentum to start his arm movement. Baily on the other hand only creates downward movement, dropping his leg almost directly to the rubber, essentially creating a pause in his forward motion that has to be overcome by movement in his hips and upper body, which results in opening his front side too early. By opening up his body early, Bailey loses a lot of his ability to create velocity with his early motion and must rely on extreme late muscle contractions to get his arm moving. I would prefer to see Baily keep his body closed longer and use his hand lift to create a forward movement in conjunction with his front leg much like Tim Lincecum does.

Lincecum has incredible mechanics and really reaches back before he opens his front hip at the last second. This allows him to create great torque through his body and up to his throwing arm, resulting in an explosive move towards the plate that creates maximum velocity with minimal wasted motion. Lincecum creates almost all of his velocity in his early wind up, allowing his later motions to complement his arm action rather than dominate it. Bailey loses all of that simply by creating too much early downward and absolutely zero forward momentum in his hand raise and leg drop. With the loss of forward momentum, he has to compensate by shifting his upper body just enough to cause a drift in his lateral movement and then he has to recenter his body towards the plate before he can release the ball, resulting in less accuracy and too much emphasis on velocity production at the wrong moment.

While watching Bailey, I get the feeling that he is often just going through the motions without actually understanding why he is doing it. When he raises his hands above his head, it seems that he's doing it simply because that's what pitchers are supposed to do, so the sooner he can get it over with, the sooner he can throw the ball. What he doesn't seem to grasp is the fact that his throwing motion actually begins with that hand raise so he should use it to his benefit, and not treat it as just another step in the process. When he pitches from the stretch, he seems to be a completely different pitcher mechanically, and I think it has to do with the fact that he doesn't have to do all that other "stuff" before he can just let it rip and throw the ball. And that brings me to my biggest complaint against Bailey. He acts and thinks like a thrower and not a pitcher, and I think his lack of a mental approach is his biggest problem. I'm sure he's been taught over and over again about attacking hitters a certain way and using certain pitches in certain counts, but just because you've been taught something does not mean you've actually learned it. Rick Sweet, one of Bailey's minor league coaches, admitted that the one thing holding Bailey back is the fact that he hasn't learned how to pitch yet.

If it sounds like I'm ripping on Bailey, it's because that's exactly what I'm doing. He's got talent, but that's about it so far, and it's not enough to overpower the majority of major league hitters he'll be facing this year. If he had the same stuff that Felix Hernandez has, then he might do alright for a while, but just as Hernandez found out this year, your stuff can only get you so far before you have to adapt to hitters who have adapted to you. Bailey found that out the hard way in 2007, and he seems a little frustrated now that he's finally facing some serious adversity. When asked over the winter about his thoughts on the goals that the Reds have set for him for the 2008 season, Bailey responded by saying, "“I don’t care what people’s goals for me are. If I can live up to my own expectations, then I’m by far reaching their goals. I have my goals, and that’s what I stick to.” He's probably right, and he probably does have lofty goals for himself, but if he can't recognize the motives behind the Reds goals, then he'll fail to learn the lessons that he really needs to learn. Bailey went on to add that one of his goals was to throw “...a strike on the first pitch to the first hitter. That would be a start.” Sounds fundamental, but in reality it would just be a quick fix to mask other weaknesses in his game. He needs a better change up and he needs to learn how to use it. His fastball is considered a plus pitch, but he has a hard time locating it so what good is a plus pitch if you don't know where it's going? He could also benefit from learning to induce more ground balls, otherwise the Great American Ball Park could turn into a launching pad for visiting teams.

Ok, I've dogged Bailey enough. I'll reiterate that he has a ton of natural talent, and as long as he can keep his confidence and not shut out what others are trying to teach him, he'll be alright. I just don't think that's how his career will work out.
Besides worrying about the opposing team, this year Bailey will also have to worry about the manager in his dugout, and I don't predict good things coming out of the Dusty Baker era in Cincinatti.

Before I forget, let's take a look at Bailey's stats and try to come up with some comparisons.

He had good early numbers, but AAA hitters were obviously a big hurdle for Bailey. He also didn't show great control at AAA despite having shown improvements in his BB/9 rates up to that point, which tells me that when things got rough, it effected him and he lost his edge. The same thing happened when he was getting knocked around in the majors. Controlling his mindset during those moments will most likely define his career.

Here are a few players to measure Bailey by. Their stats are all minor league averages.

Of those pitchers, I'd rank Bailey between Cain and Wood, with Gallardo and Zambrano as #1 and #2 respectively. If Bailey had better control, I'd be much more inclined to like him more, but it's just not there. Anyways, those aren't horrible pitchers to be associated with, but Zambrano and Wood both struggled with command and Wood of course was injured and completely lost his dominance when he had to change his arm mechanics. When Cain can locate his pitches he's fantastic, but I think it will be a few years before Bailey can match the level of control that Cain has, and he may never match Gallardo's control. If he does, he could be dangerous, especially if he develops a solid change up, but until then I foresee ERA's in the low-4.00 area, with an occasional 3.75 or so. If he ever added some kind of sinker and increased his GB% he'd be absolutely filthy, but I really don't think it's going to happen. He'll be good in a few years, and maybe one day he'll put together a few great years in his prime, but he'll take a good beating or two getting there.

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