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What, exactly, should we expect from Homer Bailey?

The Twins might have found real value for the back of their rotation

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Twins had more holes in their rotation than a block of Swiss Cheese going into the last day of 2019—but addressed one of the with the signing of Homer Bailey on the 31st.

Bailey is a veteran pitcher who spent most of his career in Cincinnati. The Reds made the Texas native the seventh pick of the 2004 draft, and Bailey looked like a solid pitcher to keep in a rotation during the early part of his career. He debuted at only 21 years old (still older than Rick Porcello,) before becoming a rotation mainstay in his age-23 season in 2009. In the following five years, he would show good results, especially in 2013, a season he finished with a 3.49 ERA and 3.31 FIP. From 2015 onward, his career was derailed by injuries and ineffectiveness, as his ERA ballooned to over 6.00 for 2016, 2017, and 2018 (while staying barely below that arbitrary mark, at 5.56 in 2015.) After the 2018 season, the Reds, probably smartly, chose to let Bailey walk away. At that point, he signed with the Royals, and actually looked like a decent pitcher again. The Royals traded him to the As mid-season, and Bailey produced at a slightly level in Oakland.

The 2019 version of Bailey was a solid option as a back-of-the-rotation starter, which is likely what the Twins are going to ask him to be. With Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi in the fold, the Twins will, at most, be asking Bailey to start the year as their number three guy, and an optimistic Twins fan will hope a trade is still coming that pushes him down to number four. Bailey’s numbers would be acceptable as the third guy on some teams, but play much better in that number four slot. In 2019 Bailey’s ERA was a combined 4.57, and his FIP was 4.11, indicating that Kansas City’s Triple-A defense didn’t exactly help him out much. Peripheral stats were also encouraging. Bailey struck out 8.2 per nine innings, a number that he hadn’t reached in a couple years, and in-line with what he did in his “good” seasons. His 8.9 hits per nine innings was also much more in line with his “good” years, and drastically lower than it has been since 2014. The drop in hits also put his WHIP much closer to what we saw when Bailey was considered a good pitcher. While he did give up bombas and walks at a slightly higher rate than his best seasons, neither number was high enough to be of great concern, or to be drastically out of line with his career numbers.

Some more-advanced measurements do even suggest there may be room for improvement over Bailey’s 2019. In 2019, Bailey gave up more hard contact than he ever had—a rocking 42.9%. That may be partially attributable to the juiceball, but if he can drop that even a little closer to his career average of 32.5%, he’ll likely see more balls in play turn into outs. Despite the elevated levels of harder contact, Bailey’s distribution of ground balls versus fly balls has not really ever changed in a statistically significant manner, nor has which side of the field batters hit the ball to. Bailey also hasn’t lost much velocity.

During his best seasons, Bailey’s fastball peaked at an average of around 94 MPH. During the injury-plagued second half of the decade, his velocity dipped as low as 91, but in 2019, he was able to average 93 MPH. The biggest change in 2019 was his pitch selection. When Bailey struggled, he also seems to lean heavily on his slider. In 2019, he threw the fastball at a career low percentage, and also cut his slider usage in half. He made up the difference primarily with a splitter, as his curveball usage stayed about the same. To put numbers on the trend, his career average usage is 60.5% fastball, 16.1% slider, 9.8% curve, and 12.6% splitter. In his worst seasons, Bailey used the slider 20-25% of the time. In 2019, however, his pitch selection was as follows: 50.6% fastball, 13.1% slider, 8.9% curve, and 26.4% splitter. This also bodes well for Bailey going forward.

Alex Avila, who the Twins also signed this off season is highly regarded around the league for pitch framing and game calling, and this is an area where Mitch Garver has seen massive improvement. Pair that with the coaching of Wes Johnson, and there is some real opportunity for the Twins to bring out Bailey’s best. He also throws a rarely-used cutter, which is the pitch that Jake Odorizzi and Martin Perez both credited with their career years last year. Imagine if the Twins add that to Bailey’s arsenal.

In the nearly-best case scenario is that the Twins just signed the 2019 version of Bailey (or slightly better.) If not, the Twins have a great “plan B” available as well. If Bailey does struggle in the first couple months of the season, it could be him, not a rookie, who Michael Pineda supplants in May. The Twins also have newly acquired Rich Hill likely joining the rotation in June or July, giving them another chance to evaluate who is working best. However, there are reasons to be optimistic that Bailey could enjoy a career reconnaissance in Minnesota, and the Twins found a drastically underrated asset.

In 2019, Bailey provided 2.9 fWAR. That’s slightly more than Kyle Gibson (2.6) or Michael Pineda (2.7) provided, so simply getting his 2019 performance can be argued as a slight upgrade, or at least standing pat versus Gibson, and for a significantly smaller chunk of change. Alternatively, Bailey could be looked at as a one win upgrade on Martin Perez, who was worth 1.9 fWAR in 2019. For the back of the rotation, he’s not a bad option. The Twins now have a solid option in place they didn’t have before, and one less hole to fill. Now it’s time to go get that impact pitcher.