Once upon a time, there were three right-handed pitching prospects. You couldn't mention one without the other, and you couldn't step into an Internet tavern without getting into it with some prospect maven. The three pitchers, in the order that Baseball America ranked them:
Right-handed pitching prospects, 2007
1. Philip Hughes
2. Homer Bailey
3. Tim Lincecum
Among all prospects, Hughes was No. 4 and Lincecum was No. 11, so it's not like there was a huge gulf between them. They were the elite of the elite. And for a while, they were a great distribution of how elite pitching prospects turn out.
One became a star, a top-of-the-rotation pitcher with multiple Cy Youngs. One showed flashes of brilliance and looked like he was on his way, before reduced velocity and shoulder problems stopped him short. One was maddeningly inconsistent. As of the middle of last year, everything seemed like it was already settled with these three.
That's usually how it works. Take three elite pitching prospects, shake them up, and roll them on the craps table, and that'd be a common roll. Well, not a third of the pitchers will win Cy Youngs, but you get the point. Pitching prospects travel down a conveyor belt, and they're mechanically sorted into the success, injury, or ambiguity chutes. Hughes, Bailey, and Lincecum exhibited that process nicely.
We figured that was the end of the story. But the 2012 season reminds us that pitching never stops being mysterious. Lincecum suffered an historical tumble, and he's the only one of the three who won't get a postseason start. Hughes moved from burgeoning star to liability back to enigma.
And here's Homer Bailey with a chance to be the most consistent of the three after all.
Here's what Baseball America wrote about Bailey in the 2007 Prospect Handbook:
While Bailey impressed scouts and prospect-watchers all season, he popped up on the national radar with a Joel Zumayaesque inning at the Futures Game. Bailey threw 20 pitches, topping out at 98 mph and not dipping under 92.
Well, that guy is gone, but his fastball was one of the fastest in the majors. His fastball averaged 91 during his no-hitter, often dipping into the high-80s, but that was something of a late-season anomaly. His velocity has remained intact since he became a full-time member of the Reds' rotation.
So if his radar readings are the same, is there something different with his delivery? Here's two GIFs, with 2010 Bailey on the left and 2012 on the right. Note that on the broadcast they were talking about Adrian Gonzalez hitting 70 home runs if he moved to a hitters' park.
I'm not a mechanics wonk, but it looks pretty similar to me. So what's different about Bailey?
Nothing. The answer might be nothing. There are certain pitchers who continually underperform when it comes to fielding-independent metrics, and every year, we wait for them to get better, and they never do. Looking at you, Ricky Nolasco. But the sample wasn't that big for Bailey. He had two seasons of allowing more runs than his peripherals indicated he should.
And, like at the end of an awful Shamalayan movie, we have our twist. What if Homer Bailey was the most consistent of the three prospects all along? The velocity goblins got to Lincecum, and his command has vanished. Hughes is still something of an enigma, with his FIP over the last two seasons sticking around the 4.50 range. But Bailey seemingly turned a corner that he might have turned two years ago without anyone noticing.
In five years, things could be flipped around again. Heck, we could be writing about Andrew Miller coming back and shaming them all.
Pitching's a weird business, but for right now, Homer Bailey seems like he's figuring it out. Maybe he has been for a while.