In an offseason where contract extensions for starting pitchers have become in vogue, multiple reports suggest that the Cincinnati Reds aren't far away from extending Homer Bailey, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent next winter. According to MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is "optimistic" that a multi-year deal will get done despite Bailey rejecting the team's arbitration offer last Thursday. In the final year of his arbitration eligibility, Bailey had vouched for a $11.6 million 2014 salary that was significantly higher than repoted $8.7 million Jocketty was willing to pay for him at that juncture.
Whether or not this stark difference in value will affect Bailey's willingness to re-sign with the Reds remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Homer Bailey is (finally) transforming into the 'ace' type starter Cincinnati recognized when its front office staff drafted him with the seventh overall pick in 2004.
It wasn't always like that, though. From his first true season in 2009 to the end of 2012, Bailey was nothing more than an average starter -- at best. In 94 outings (all starts) over that span, the La Grange (TX) High School product held true to a 4.18 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.4 K/9 ratio and 2.8 BB/9 ratio compared to the league-average starter's 4.05 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 6.9 K/9 ratio and 2.8 BB/9 ratio. In most cases, Bailey would have been considered a decent back-end starter. But for a former top prospect in a system that housed Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto, numbers like this were largely disappointing.
Then 2013 rolled around, and several things changed. Aside from setting career-best marks in ERA (3.49), WHIP (1.12), ground-ball rate (46.1%), opponents' OPS (.660), Bailey increased his strikeout ratio (K/9) to 8.6 -- a year after punching out a near league-average ratio of 7.3. For those keeping tabs, that's nearly a five percent increase (19.2% in 2012, 23.1% in 2013) in strikeouts per 100 plate appearances, which last season was on par with Justin Verlander's 23.5% strikeout rate.
How was he able to accomplish this?
Comparing Bailey's Strikeout Pitch Frequencies, 2009-2013
Looking at Bailey's strikeout locations over the past five seasons, we notice that his strikeouts have progressively shifted away from the middle portion of the plate toward the "edge" of the strike zone, particularly in 2013. This observation is a correct one, as Bailey's strikeout zone% (pitches thrown in the strike zone) has decreased steadily, beginning at 53% in 2009 and finishing at a career-low (keep this in mind) 43.2% last season. The same can be said about his overall zone%, which started at 51.2% in 2009 and shrunk to a career-low 49.6% in 2013.
What's the Correlation?
How has Bailey's exodus to the outer-portion of the strike zone affected his total number of strikeouts? As we can see, there is a clear correlation between the two: As Bailey has thrown fewer pitches in the zone (see 'overall zone%' data trend), his strikeout rate has increased, albeit not in perfect progression. Simultaneously, his chase, miss and called strike rate have increased on a steady incline, and his strikeout zone% has, as already noted, decreased over the last five seasons. Normally, you'd think throwing less pitches in the zone equates to fewer called strikes, and thus, batters would be less willing to chase those offerings.
What's the trend?
Comparing starting pitchers' zone% and strikeout rate since 2009
If you thought that, you were correct. Since 2009, the trend suggests that as a pitcher's zone% decreases, his strikeout rate should follow suit. But this is not the case with Bailey, as we've discussed -- he's drifting outside the zone, yet his strikeout rate has increased. Throwing any more pitches out of the zone would really be pushing his luck with home plate umpires, at least in my mind.
Whatever the case may be, it seems Bailey has discovered the key to increasing his strikeouts: Throwing away from the middle of the plate and working the edges of the zone -- even if that means throwing less pitches in the zone. Whether or not Bailey can get away with throwing progressively fewer pitches in the zone while increasing his strikeout rate remains to be seen, but for right now, it seems this strategy has transformed him into one of the more lethal right-handed starters in the game.