OAKLAND — Homer Bailey was just about to come onto the field in Kansas City on Sunday for his 19th start of the season when Royals manager Ned Yost told him he wouldn’t be pitching that night against the Detroit Tigers. He’d been traded to the Oakland Athletics, a team he’d faced three times in his career, and a team he didn’t know much about.
The one thing Bailey did know? The fact that he was going from a team 28 games under .500 to a team in the thick of the playoff picture.
“The only thing I see is the record right now,” Bailey said. “That’s just something that glares out.”
The first in what’s likely to be a string of moves to improve the club before the trade deadline, Bailey’s acquisition in exchange for minor leaguer Kevin Merrell will pay immediate dividends. Slated to start on Wednesday against the Seattle Mariners, Bailey is in the midst of arguably the best stretch of his career, and joins an A’s team that’s won 10 of its last 12 en route to jumping into the second wild card slot.
“To go from a team that is very young and inexperienced and is kind of finding their own way in the league right now to something like this, it’s definitely an energy boost,” Bailey said. “In all different trades, guys that are going to contending teams, maybe their game will elevate a little bit.”
Since June 7, Bailey is 3-0 in six starts with a 2.83 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 35 innings, and now, he comes to a park that’s one of the most pitcher-friendly in the Major Leagues. It’s a major shift for the former No. 7 overall pick who’s never really delivered on his promise, sporting a career ERA of 4.58.
“He’s always been a talented guy. He got that contract over there for a reason,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s had some injuries there since. Sometimes there’s a pitching coach that you feel good about. Sometimes there’s a pitch that you tinker with a little bit and a lot of it has to do with confidence. If you’re feeling confident on the mound that’s a lot of the battle.”
Up through his June 1 start, Bailey — on a one-year, $23 million deal with the Royals — Bailey was well on his way to a third straight season with an ERA north of six, had a 4-8 record and was averaging under five innings per start. Then, he found something that worked. He wouldn’t say what.
“I can’t even answer that. Just getting lucky, I don’t know,” he said. “I think to go into details is kind of mundane to do right now. Just an overall picture: pitching a little bit better, having a little bit better game plans going into it, better preparation. Hopefully it’ll continue.”
If Bailey was a bit short on Tuesday, he has good reason: Four times, he said he had just gotten off the plane, and he wasn’t exaggerating. He arrived in Oakland at 1:50 p.m., headed to the stadium, got dressed, chatted with Bob Melvin and then addressed reporters at 3:17.
In a sense, though, Bailey did hit on part of the reason he’s improved this year. In each of the last three seasons, his batting average on balls in play has been .327, .346 and .452. That indicates a pitcher who’s gotten very unlucky. If that is indeed the case, the expansive foul ground at the Coliseum and having a pair of Gold Glove infielders in Matt Chapman and Matt Olson should help him out.
Looking deeper into the numbers, his fielding independent pitching would seem to back that up. His FIP this season — essentially an ERA if he had a league-average defense — is 4.48, compared to a 4.80 traditional ERA.
In 2018, his FIP was 5.55, compared to a 6.09 ERA. The year before, his FIP was 4.90, compared to a 6.43 ERA. In 2016, the difference was even more stark: His FIP was 3.10, but his ERA was a career-worst 6.65, though that only came in 23 innings.
That leads to another one of Bailey’s issues: Injury. He’s had Tommy John surgery (which cost him most of 2015 and 2016) and only threw 106 1.3 innings last season in 20 starts because of a knee injury, going 1-14. He hasn’t started more than 20 games since 2014.
“I know he’s gone through some injuries and had some struggles leading up to it but I don’t know that he’s pitched much better,” Melvin said. “To this point, it looks like the velo’s up a bit, good split, can pitch up and down.”
Josh Phegley will catch Bailey in his first Oakland start, and will get to know his repertoire and style before the game, but the A’s won’t try and put too much on their new pitcher’s shoulders just yet, especially since he hasn’t pitched in 12 days.He wanted to throw on Monday, but insurance issues kick in after trades, so it was thought that it would be best if he waited until he got to Oakland, rather than risk injury.
“Take a look at pitch counts and then consider how long it’s been since he pitched and kinda go from there,” Melvin said. “But I know he’s excited to be here and we’re excited about having him.”
Knowing no one in the clubhouse, he had to get introductions done quickly. He did, however, have some knowledge of Melvin.
A Cincinnati Red for 12 of his first 13 big league seasons, Bailey played for four years under Bryan Price, a former star pitcher for the Cal Golden Bears. While Price didn’t cross over with A’s manager Bob Melvin — who was at Cal in 1980, one year before Price was a freshman — the two are very close friends.
As soon as he could get to his phone after learning of the trade, Bailey texted Price, who gave Melvin “rave reviews.” Melvin checked in with his old friend, too.
“Bryan said he buried me to him,” Melvin said, joking. “But, yes, it’s nice to have a resource like Bryan, who knows him very well. They got pretty close over there, so to understand what the player is all about and know how to talk to him is a nice resource to have.”
Melvin, in turn, asked about Bailey. His advice? “Just communicate with him, and everything will be alright.”