Homer's arm precious, his makeup precocious
BRADENTON, Fla. - The kid taught himself how to throw a changeup. He slid the middle and index fingers of his golden right hand entirely off the top of the ball. Without the influence of those two "power fingers,'' the speed of the pitch slowed enough to fool hitters.
"Any time I'd put any pressure (on the ball) with my middle or index finger, it comes out 88 (mph), just what (hitters) are looking for,'' Homer Bailey explained. "I needed to make it slower. I use weaker fingers and throw it as hard as I can. It's part of learning by yourself.''
Recently, Reds TV analyst Chris Welsh filmed a segment with Bailey for the team's pre-game show, when Bailey displayed his changeup grip. "I've never seen that,'' said Welsh. "Who taught you that?''
"Nobody,'' Bailey said.
"Usually, you don't see that in a guy until he's 26 or 27. You'd have thought he'd been in the big leagues 10 years, the way he explained himself,'' said Welsh.
Homer Bailey will be swiveling heads for a lot of years. The difference between a great, young pitcher and a great, young thrower is usually between the ears. Bailey is 20 going on Clemens.
He has the sort of Tiger Woods confidence that suggests what you do against him is irrelevant. If Bailey's on his game, it doesn't much matter. After his two-inning workout against Pittsburgh Sunday, someone asked Bailey how many fastballs he threw. Reasonable question, given that Bailey's fastball threatens the sound barrier.
"No idea,'' the kid said. "I don't even remember who I just faced. I couldn't tell you what I just did.''
He knew about his own game, though. The supremely gifted always do. He knew he rushed his pitches. He knew he threw too many pitches too high in the strike zone. He threw some changeups so well, he couldn't believe the Pirates actually hit them. Jose Hernandez fouled off a 3-2 change in the second inning, before ripping a two-run double to right. "Are you kidding me?'' was Bailey's reaction.
I talked to Bailey for the first time Sunday. He showed a wisdom that bordered on smugness. It was the first time I ever felt I was being lectured by a 20-year-old.
I mentioned that 21-year-old pitchers (Bailey turns 21 in May), with a few notable exceptions, aren't successful in the major leagues. Had he noticed?
"Do you expect them to (be)?'' Bailey shot back. "If I'm there early in the season, there are going to be times I'm going to get hit around. So what? The sun's coming up the next day. You learn by it. Some people are scared to death of making a mistake or looking bad out there. I personally don't care. Like today. First inning, breezed right through. Second inning, did some things wrong. I need that. (I) know what I need to do now.''
The difference between pitchers and throwers, Bailey explained patiently to a hopeless scribe, is "finding your weaknesses and trying to make them strengths. You always hear the greatest pitchers (being) students of the game. I'll be the first to tell you I'm not,'' said Bailey. "But I will do whatever it takes to be the best at what I do, whether it's learning how to command a changeup or breaking ball (or) making adjustments like getting the fastball down in the stretch.''
He doesn't watch baseball when he isn't playing it. He didn't know anything about the Pirates. The kid doesn't clutter his head.
Bailey likely will begin the year in Triple-A, where he can start every fifth day. The Reds have four off days in April, and a conga line of veterans competing for the fifth starter's spot. There is no need to rush him. History says the best pitchers don't shine until they're at least 22.
Dontrelle Willis and C.C. Sabathia are notable exceptions, as was Kerry Wood. Wood went 13-6 in 1998 at age 21 and was rookie of the year. He was also hurt all of the following season. Greg Maddux went 6-14 at age 21; Tom Glavine was 2-4, John Smoltz 2-7. Reds GM Wayne Krivsky was in Minnesota with the Twins' young guns Francisco Liriano and Johan Santana. Each blossomed after late-season call-ups at age 21.
Homer Bailey's arm is ready for prime time. We already knew that. So, it turns out, is his head. We're just waiting on the inevitable now.