In 2013, Homer Bailey had a very good season for a pitcher. He threw 209 innings in 32 starts with an ERA of 3.49 and 199 strikeouts to only 54 walks. The following off-season he signed a six-year, $105 million extension with the Reds. This contract was a bit of an outlier even at the time. Bailey had never been a true “ace”, but he was getting something close to ace money.
Bailey’s 2014 was shortened due to “arm fatigue”, where he made only 23 starts. In 2015 he went under the knife for Tommy John surgery, returning mid-way through 2016 to make six starts to the tune of a 6.65 ERA. He again underwent surgery to remove bone spurs, but was never really able to return to form. In the end, Bailey was traded last off-season as part of a big package to the Dodgers for financial reasons, and was released the same day. In February of this season, the Royals signed him to a minor league deal at virtually no cost with an invite to spring training.
Bailey impressed in spring training, and after a brief stint with Omaha was called up to start their fifth game of the season. Bailey posted by far his best season since 2013, and his best numbers since 2014 with the Royals. Over 18 starts he pitched 90 innings with an ERA of 4.80. Despite the inflated ERA (and elevated BB/9, 3.80) he was still largely effective, accumulating 1.1 fWAR with a K/9 of 8.10 (his highest in the majors since 2016). He had some very good games, notably a seven-inning, two-hit start against Cleveland on April 13th, and a start in Seattle on June 18th where he pitched into the eighth inning, allowing only five hits and no runs.
When hitters did make contact, his line drive, fly ball, and pull % all remained at or near career norms, however his hard hit rate spiked over 10% (42.9% this season vs a 32.5% career), suggesting his increased value is almost entirely in his increased strike out rate. Bailey’s resurgence as an effective major league starter likely has something to do with his increased usage of his split finger pitch. His usage was over 7% higher than any previous season, at 26.4% (up drastically from 2018, 15.9%).
On July 14th, the Royals traded Bailey to the Oakland A’s for prospect Kevin Merrell who currently ranks as the Royals #18 prospect according to mlb.com.
When determining the success of a reclamation project, you always have to grade on a curve. The Royals signed Bailey for next to nothing, and paid him the major league minimum for the duration of his stint with the Royals. The were able to flip him for a prospect whom they had coveted for his speed (very Royals). In the end, this is exactly the kind of signing and success story you hope a rebuilding team can make in order to move themselves forward. While the prospect return may not have been as good as one had hoped, it still helped to deepen the farm system. Bailey’s season, both personally and for the Royals, was a resounding success.
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