The last three years have been rough for Reds pitcher Homer Bailey.
Once the top prospect in Cincinnati’s entire system, Bailey’s career trajectory has been pointing steadily downward for a long time, and it’s starting to look like time for him to pack things in.
Where did it go wrong?
Bailey’s last start, on Thursday against the Cardinals, was yet another hammering. He lasted only four innings, giving up seven hits and four runs (all earned) while striking out only three. That’s in keeping with his awful season, which has seen him go 5-9 with a 6.96 ERA and a WHIP of 1.75.
Bailey had finally delivered on some of his potential starting in 2012, the first in a string of three excellent seasons that saw him throw no-hitters in back to back years. But the last of those years, 2014, was cut short by an arm injury after only 23 starts. He made only two starts in 2015 before being diagnosed with a torn UCL and undergoing Tommy John surgery. His recovery was plagued by setbacks, and it wasn’t until July of last year that he finally got back on the mound. He managed six starts, going 2-3 with 6.65 ERA and an alarmingly high 1.82 WHIP.
There aren’t a lot of positives here. Tommy John is one of those miracles of modern medicine, but it’s no guarantee. For every story of a pitcher going on to as much or greater success after having the surgery, there are just as many of one never coming back to the form he had before his arm betrayed him.
Hope for a comeback
It’s tempting to just chalk Bailey up as done, but it may be imprudent to do so quite yet. Baseball is littered with redemption stories—there are Comeback Player of the Year awards for a reason, you know.
Just look at one of baseball’s biggest fan favorite of recent years: Bartolo Colon.
Colon was one of the game’s best starting pitchers for the Cleveland Indians, Montreal Expos, and Chicago White Sox in the early 2000s. His play earned him a big four-year, $51 million contract with the then-Anaheim Angels in 2004.
The results of that contract were mixed. In his first year, he won 18 games—albeit with an ERA of 5.01. He went 21-8 to win the Cy Young award the next season but then cratered. He lost most of the 2006 season to a shoulder injury, and in 2007 pitched to a 6.34 ERA in 18 starts.
He spent parts of two seasons with the Boston Red Sox and the White Sox again, but in 2010 he was out of baseball entirely.
It looked like his career was over, but the twilight of career produced quite a vivid sunset indeed.
After breaking back into the league in 2011 with the New York Yankees, he spent two excellent years in Oakland and even came in sixth in Cy Young voting in 2013. Three solid years as a fan favorite with the New York Mets followed. Over those five years, he returned to the All-Star Game twice and is still going with the Twins at age 45.
What does all this have to do with Homer Bailey, you might ask? At 31, he’s very close to the same age Colon was when he started losing steam with the Angels.
Colon’s career recovery proves that a guy like Bailey can bounce back and be an effective pitcher, even after an extended slump. Add in the fact that Bailey arguably has a better injury situation than Colon did—elbows tend to recover far better than shoulders—and there’s no reason he can’t bounce back after getting some more time under his belt.
Things certainly do look bad for Bailey, but history proves that it might not be smart to give up on him just yet.
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