Thursday, June 18, 2009

Homer and the (Career Saving?) Splitter

Here's an interesting article from Rick Bozich of the Courier Journal about Homer Bailey's recent stretch of dominance. Maybe Homer has finally found the swing-and-miss pitch he so desperately needs. Or maybe it's just a small sample size hot streak that the media has jumped on as the next silver lining to the Homer Bailey cloud.

You'll have to decide for yourself.

June 17, 2009

Bailey's split decision has foes dazzled

When Branch Rickey described baseball as a game of inches, odds are he was talking about balls that barely clear the fence or squirt beyond an infielder's grasp.

Homer Bailey is adding another anecdote to Rickey's signature phrase. By sliding his middle finger an inch or so wider in his grip, Bailey has added a split-fingered fastball that is transforming him from just another hyped Louisville Bats prospect to the most unhittable pitcher in the International League.

Ask the Norfolk Tides.

At Louisville Slugger Field on Wednesday, the Tides became the fourth consecutive team to look utterly confused and overmatched by Bailey. He still can make the radar gun flash consistently with his magical 96mph fastball, but now he's also throwing an 88mph split-finger fastball that tumbles into the dirt as it arrives at home plate.

"The first time he threw one, my only comment was, 'Holy smokes!'" Bats manager Rick Sweet said.

Using those two pitches, plus his curveball and slider, Bailey limited the Tides to seven harmless singles in eight shutout innings in a 6-2 Louisville victory.

He started throwing the split-finger June2 at Pawtucket. He has now taunted hitters with it in four starts.

These are his statistics for those games: He has allowed one run and 24 hits (no home runs) in 311/3 innings. He has struck out 30 hitters and walked five. Opponents are batting .211 against him.

"I've had Homer three years and never seen him anywhere near as dominating, game after game after game," Sweet said. "He's controlling the best hitters in this league, absolutely controlling them with his stuff."

Credit the split-finger. Credit Bailey. But most of all, credit Bats pitcher Justin Lehr.

After four seasons of fooling nobody with his changeup, Bailey said he was charting pitches for Lehr one night. Bailey is 23, a former No.1 draft pick, a proud Texan and a guy the Cincinnati Reds expect to anchor their starting rotation. Lehr is 31, a veteran who pitched in South Korea part of last season and survives on guile.

Bailey watched Lehr confuse hitters with his split-finger pitch and asked him to show him the grip. Lehr agreed. They huddled in late May in the outfield in Scranton, Pa. When Bailey throws his fastball, he grips the ball where the seams come together. Lehr taught him to keep his index finger on the seam but move his middle finger outside the seam. That's the splitter.

Same pitching motion. Different grip. Devastating results.

"I threw one or two and (Lehr) said, 'You already have it. There's nothing to teach,'" Bailey said.

Not exactly. The folks running the Reds' farm system had to approve. Bailey said he wanted to learn it several years ago but was told that throwing the splitter could injure his shoulder or elbow. Approval denied.

Velocity has given him multiple opportunities in the big leagues, starting in 2007, but velocity was not keeping him in Cincinnati. Bailey understood he needed to deceive hitters. The splitter would be his deception.

Bats pitching coach Ted Power had to ask his supervisors for approval. Bailey said he already had made his decision.

"I said, 'Teddy, you can ask them, but I really don't care,'" Bailey said. "I'm throwing it. If they tell me, 'No,' I'm just going to throw it anyway. You can call it a changeup if you like."

We'll never know how that dispute would have been resolved. The Reds gave their OK. And now Bailey is giving hitters something to think about other than his fastball. He's also giving the Reds something to think about for their pitching rotation.

--Rick Bozich

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