Homer Bailey and His Sexy Splitter

Homer Bailey was really coming into his own as we began 2014. He had gotten incrementally better in each of his first seven seasons, bettering his K:BB ratio each season and stringing together five years of ERA improvements from 2008-2013. But then he came out and dropped an ERA north of 5.00 for the first two months of the season. He rebounded in the summer, but then a strained flexor tendon ended his season in early-August. He had surgery a month later (September 5th) and is slated to be ready for Spring Training. In fact, a December 5th report suggested he was actually ahead of schedule.

So what happened that left him with a 5.44 ERA through May 17th? Everything just felt a little off in those first nine starts, but the fastball and curveball were particularly troubling. They combined to allow a 1.046 OPS (including 7 HRs) with 19 strikeouts and 16 walks in 146 PA. The command of both was off which helps explain both why he was giving up more walks with the pitches and getting hammered when he was in the zone.

Still, there weren’t enough wholesale changes on either pitch to believe that he was in serious trouble. The .402 BABIP stuck out, too. Some of that was definitely his fault. If you tee it up, you are going to have an outsized BABIP, but there was reason for hope of a rebound even before the benefit of hindsight. In his final 14 starts, Bailey had a 2.77 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over 94.3 innings – in short, he looked a lot like the guy we had seen the previous two seasons with a slightly inflated ERA (his skills weren’t quite on par with a sub-3.00 ERA).

He used both pitches a bit less in those final 14 starts, but they rebounded and allowed a .729 OPS and two fewer walks despite 78 more PA. Also, two fewer homers allowed and the BABIP dropped to a far more respectable .296 (it was .294 on those pitches in 2012-13). So neither pitch sparked his surge, but they stopped holding him back. The driving force behind his run was the splitter. After slowly improving year-over-year (but still remaining below league average by OPS), it became a plus-plus offering in 2014.

The .249 OPS was easily baseball’s best among the 17 pitchers who threw at least 200 splitters last year (Jeff Samardzija at .335 was second) as neither lefties nor righties stood a chance against it. He didn’t even have to put it in the zone to entice batters to flail. His 25.9 zone percentage was lowest, but netted an obscene 26.3 percent swinging strike rate (tied for second with Koji Uehara and behind only Masahiro Tanaka’s 29.3 percent mark).

A jump like this is primed for regression – call me crazy, but I’m not sure the .111 BABIP is here to stay – but there is a lot of room for that pitch to regress and remain excellent. I’m really eager to see if he pumps up the usage. He only threw it 11.8 percent of the time last year, which was actually down from 12.8 in 2013. The inside-outside combination of the slider and splitter worked wonders on both righties and lefties. Their effectiveness has me wondering if perhaps he should all-but-scrap the curveball and just go fastball-slider-splitter. Here is the splitty in action against Cleveland on August 7th  in a start where he went seven scoreless, allowing four hits and one walk with eight strikeouts, including these two off the splitter. First against Carlos Santana:

Then against Yan Gomes. These were back-to-back at-bats, too.

I’m still rather high on Bailey and it will be even easier to invest in 2015 because the price has tanked thanks to the modest results and season-ending surgery. I still think there is a frontline-type season in this arm as he has the stuff to miss tons of bats. His career-high strikeout rate currently stands at 23.4 percent, but there is a definitely 25+ percent potential here. Reap the discount and bid with confidence!

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Nice piece, Paul. i agree….he will come cheaper this year, and is someone i am targeting. Shhhhh