With or without the new contract that multiple sources are now reporting, Homer Bailey was likely to pitch in a Cincinnati uniform this year. So his five-year extension shouldn’t affect your expectations much for the Reds’ 2014 season. But Bailey’s deal should clearly make the Reds a stronger team beyond 2014, because as Jeff Brantley would say, Homer Bailey can pitch some.
David Dewitt Bailey, who turns 28 in May, is entering the prime years for a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. That’s when all the wisdom born of the hard work, hard luck and harder knocks begins to pay off. Homer Bailey has become a savvy, experienced version of the long-haired phenom from La Grange high school chosen by the Reds with the seventh selection of the 2004 amateur draft.
The numbers show that after two solid seasons in 2011 and 2012, Homer Bailey took a Texas-sized step forward last year. To find an explanation you drill down to fundamentals. Start with Bailey’s fastball velocity, which increased nearly two mph in 2013. A significant jump like that generally makes everything a pitcher throws more effective. The statistic “swinging-strike percentage” (SwStr%) measures the percent of total pitches where the batter swings and misses. Homer Bailey had the eleventh best SwStr% out of all major league starters in 2013. He also had the sixteenth best first-pitch strike percentage.
These factors contributed to a meaningful surge in Bailey’s strikeout-rate (K/9) from 7.3 to 8.6. Good enough to be twenty-first best in the majors for starters. And the tall right-hander hasn’t sacrificed control on the altar of strikeouts. In 2013, he maintained the low walk-rate of 2.3 per nine innings.
Combine the higher velocity, whiffs and first-pitch strikes with Bailey’s command and you end up with an elite starter. He finished in the top 25 starters in the majors in FIP, xFIP and fWAR. After struggling through injuries early in his career, Bailey has proven his durability by throwing 417 innings the past two seasons. Bobblehead-worthy no-hitters and near-perfect NLDS games are bright red cherries on top.
Barring a serious setback, the Bailey extension gives the Reds a top-of-the-line starting pitcher for this year and five more. You can debate the term ace, but Homer Bailey has clearly emerged as one of the best 25 pitchers in baseball. He’s a cornerstone like any successful franchise needs.
Is Bailey worth $105 million? If you’re looking for a saber-minded assessment, try this. Assume that Bailey earns 4.0 WAR this season (3.7 fWAR last year) then he starts a normal decline of .5 WAR/year. Over the length of the new contract, he’d earn 16.5 WAR. To put a dollar value on that, assume one WAR is worth $6 million on the open market, plus factor in a modest rate of salary inflation. Under those rough assumptions, Bailey would earn in the ballpark (ha) of $108 million.
The Bailey extension agreement also seems right in comparison to other recent starter pitcher contracts. Bailey ($19 mil/5 years) falls between Zack Grienke ($26.5 mil/6 years) and Matt Garza ($12.5 mil/4 years) in terms of performance and compensation.
Can the club can reasonably afford this contract? The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, definitely. As I’ve explained recently, the Reds can afford nice things like this extension. Given the rivers of revenue streaming into the accounts of MLB in general (national television contracts, digital platforms) and to the Cincinnati Reds in particular (new television contract, attendance, post-season appearances), the team should be able to afford player salaries over $160 million by 2017. That the organization raised payroll by more than $25 million in one year, to $107 million in 2013, is solid evidence of the club moving in that direction.
Did the Reds get a discount in this deal? Not in the sense that Bailey gave the Reds a hometown break per se. That’s mostly a function of the negotiations taking place just one year before Bailey would hit the free agent market. (Hint: Mat Latos) But, of course the Reds benefitted from being the sole team allowed to negotiate with Bailey. Only the Reds could offer him a guarantee of financial security for the rest of his life that didn’t depend on his health or performance in 2014. If Bailey hadn’t agreed to this deal and put together another outstanding season, he’d have inked an even more lucrative contract starting in 2015. So it’s a discount of sorts.
What implication does the Bailey deal have for future signings? While mega-payroll teams like the Dodgers can afford long-term contracts for three or more starting pitchers, the Reds will likely be limited to two. That means choosing between locking up Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto, both of whom are currently under team control through the 2015 season. Absent new extensions, Cueto will earn $10 million in 2014 and 2015. Latos has a $7.25 million contract for 2014 and his 2015 salary will be established through arbitration. Yes, the Reds can afford to sign another top-tier pitcher. In 2018, contracts for Joey Votto ($25 m), Jay Bruce ($21 m, est.), Mat Latos ($20 m, est.) and Homer Bailey ($20 m) would represent less than 50% of total team payroll. In 2017, you could be looking at a rotation of Latos, Bailey, Tony Cingrani, Robert Stephenson and one other starter.
Still disappointed in the front office? As I said at the start, this deal doesn’t fix any of the problems with the 2014 roster. The Reds are still relying on an unproven rookie to bat lead-off and Aroldis Chapman remains wasted the bullpen. But give the Reds’ front office due credit for paying market value for an important player. The Reds didn’t low-ball Homer Bailey. They appear to have evaluated his talent based on advanced numbers that isolate what the pitcher controls, not the win-loss record, and paid #34 what he’s worth. The signing, along with the Votto extension, indicates the club recognizes and is taking advantage of the anticipated growth in revenues.
Bottom line, the deal is a winner for the club, player and Reds fans.