Texas Righthander Ambles Into Draft
Bailey emerges as the latest in a long line of gifted, good ol' Texas boys
By Alan Matthews
There's not often a lot of fuss in La Grange, Texas. A town of 4,500, it sets off U.S. Highway 77 about midway between San Antonio and Houston, and beyond the Fayette County Fair and an air show, there's not much going on.
But once a week during baseball season this spring, La Grange became a must-see travel destination for major league scouting directors and crosscheckers. And they all came to see easygoing, hard-throwing senior righthander Homer Bailey.
David "Homer" Bailey Jr. is the real McCoy. He drives a Ford F-150 diesel pickup truck, wears boots and a cowboy hat and spends his free time hunting in the woods back of his father's egg farm. "Right now it's wild boar season," he says. "I cut the tusks out and keep a collection in my room."
Like the eye of a hurricane, the sanguine Bailey hasn't been caught up in the hype that has surrounded the town, yet he is at its center. He offers a mid-90s fastball, solid secondary pitches, a slender, projectable build and an unflappable demeanor strong enough to withstand a Texas twister. It has made him the most sought-after high school player in the draft class of 2004.
The 18-year-old has long been a big deal in his hometown. Texas has produced a bevy of pitching prospects, and it was clear Bailey was another one in the making as he cut his teeth against the state's tough competition. He has notched wins over current minor league pitching prospects Zach Segovia and Don Levinski, to name just a couple.Legacy Born
As a freshman in 2001, Bailey was thrown right in to the fire and led La Grange High to the Class 3-A championship. He matched up with future Reds first-rounder Ryan Wagner, then a Houston-bound senior, in a regional final against Yoakum High and outdueled him to advance. Against Iowa Park High in the state semifinals, he took on lefty Chase Wright, a third-round pick that year by the Yankees, and dominated, winning 7-1. "He could do everything," recalls Wright, now with the Yankees' Class A Battle Creek affiliate. "In that big of a game to get the start, that takes a lot. Velocity-wise and good command . . . You could tell he had a chance."
A day later in the title game against Forney High, with the score tied 3-3 in the fifth inning, La Grange coach Ralph Ferguson called on Bailey in relief. He retired all eight batters he faced as La Grange rallied to win 4-3. As a 15-year-old, Bailey was the Class 3-A tournament MVP as the winning pitcher in the school's first state championship since 1973.
"When you're around baseball you just see certain talents, and you know they're special," Ferguson says. "He handled pressure very well from the beginning."
Bailey's fastball was touching 89 mph then, and his velocity has climbed each year. Despite his impressive credentials, however, he entered his senior season as one of about a dozen good righthanders in this year's prep class. While most of the others have faded, at least a bit, Bailey has surged to the top of the list.
He was brilliant from the season's first outing. He grabbed the reins in March, when he took on Weimar High's Ken Kasparek and struck out 10 over four perfect innings, touching 94 mph. From there, he dug in the spurs and galloped to the top of draft boards with a fearless approach and an advanced assortment of pitches.
"Absolutely," a scouting director said when asked if Bailey had surpassed Nick Adenhart, who was the top prep pitching prospect coming into the season. "I think he's got a better body, the ball comes out of his hand easier, he has more projection to him, he throws harder and has a sharper breaking ball.
"He's the epitome of a pure projection pitcher. He has plus stuff with a good breaking ball, and he even has a little change-piece now. And it comes out of his hand really easy."
Bailey did not allow an earned run until his eighth outing and wrapped up the regular season 10-0, 0.23 with two saves. He allowed two earned runs, striking out 144 and walking seven in 61 innings. He threw a five-inning no-hitter with 13 strikeouts in a mercy-rule 10-0 win over Hardin-Jefferson High in the first round of the playoffs.
Scouts said Bailey will add velocity as he fills out his spindly, 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame. He's pitched at 93 mph this season with plus command of all three of his pitches, including an 81-83 mph curveball with 11-to-5 break.
"He's always been able to have more velocity than the average pitcher out there, so everyone knew that he had some arm strength," an area scout said. "But to develop the secondary pitches that he has is a credit to how hard he's worked.
"It doesn't look like he's throwing that hard, but you pull out the gun and he's 92, 93, 94 and it's so easy and smooth."Signature Of His Own
Easy and smooth are not often adjectives used to describe the big flamethrowers the state has produced so many of. The first image of Roger Clemens to pop into your head doesn't often incorporate anything resembling mellow. Even Texas high school product Josh Beckett has taken a liking to a rugged goatee and is known for his signature ripping of his right leg through the air after releasing a pitch.
But Bailey has produced similar results at the high school level with a smooth and fluid motion. His delivery has perfect tempo, and though his body is still awkward, his mechanics look comfortable and aligned, never forced or deliberate.
Still, his delivery and stuff draw comparisons to other pitchers the state has produced. And in an era when high school righthanders are picked apart by scouts looking for a reason not to spend an early-round selection and millions of dollars, Bailey stands up to the scrutiny.
"There's always going to be some risk involved with any pitcher you take," a scouting director said. "But there's going to be some people taking chances on this kind of arm. It's one of those rare ones that doesn't come along often.
"If you look at the state of Texas, two recent ones that have gone out of the state in the first five picks have had a little success: Beckett and (Kerry) Wood."
Bailey has a scholarship to stay in state at Texas, but as a likely top 10 pick in the draft, he's not likely to make it to Austin except as a visitor. He doesn't seem any more anxious about what lies ahead than he is about the collection of mud on his truck's tailgate.
"It's a tough position to be in, but at the same time it's really not," he says in the matter-of-fact fashion that epitomizes his humble persona. "If I was lucky enough to be taken in the first five picks, who would not go pro? If you talk to anyone who goes that high and says they're going to college, they're lying.
"It makes sense. If you go to college, it's not to pursue a career, it's to get better and go higher in the draft. If you go in the first five picks, you can't do any better than that. You have to take that advantage when it's there. You don't just pass up that kind of money."
So until the draft, Bailey will continue to savor the long summer evenings that allow him a little extra daylight for hunting. And La Grange will savor its easygoing, hard-throwing prospect for a little bit longer, before giving him over to the rest of the country.