Boston Red Sox: Warming Up to the Idea of Daniel Bard as a Starter
When I first heard that the Boston Red Sox planned on using Daniel Bard as a starting pitcher, I was not a fan of the idea. I couldn't understand why the team would mess with a good thing. Bard has been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball the last two seasons. His role in the Boston bullpen would be hard to replace. Besides, Bard attempted to be a starting pitcher in the minor leagues and failed.
But the more research I did on the possibility of using Bard as a starting pitcher, the more I liked the idea. The first thing I did when trying to project how Bard would fare as a starting pitcher was to compare him to other similarly hard throwing pitchers. This is because over the last three seasons, Bard has averaged a 97.4 mph fastball. That's good for the best in the major leagues (minimum 100 innings total the last three seasons).
Barring injury, it's almost unheard of for a relief pitcher to lose 3.4 mph on their fastball when they transition to the rotation. So I looked at every major league pitcher who threw 100 innings or more while averaging 94 mph or more on their fastball in any of the last three seasons. The results I found where surprising:
2011 - 8 pitchers, 1,468 innings pitched, 594 earned runs surrendered, 3.64 ERA
2010 - 10 pitchers, 1,948 innings pitched, 671 earned runs surrendered, 3.10 ERA
2009 - 10 pitchers, 1,988 innings pitched, 811 earned runs surrendered, 3.67 ERA
Total - 5,404 innings pitched, 2,076 earned runs surrendered, 3.46 ERA
Throwing hard may not be everything when it comes to being a starting pitcher, but when a pitcher's fastball sits in the mid-90s it does appear to be a legitimate difference maker. This was encouraging so I decided to dig a little deeper. That's when I came across an article by Marc Normandin of Over the Monster that also attempted to project Daniel Bard as a starting pitcher.
Would Daniel Bard make a successful starting pitcher?
To quote the article:
The Rule of 17: Tom Tango knows his statistical analysis, and one of the things that has been discovered in his many endeavors is learning what happens when a starter becomes a reliever, or a reliever becomes a starter. "The Rule of 17" is the result of this research, named because of how oddly often that number shows up in this matter.
The strikeout-per-plate appearance (K/PA) of a pitcher goes up 17 percent as a reliever, after starting. Batting average on balls in play tends to drop an average of 17 points out of the bullpen. Home runs (relative to contact) drop 17 percent out of the bullpen as well. Walk rate, though? That remains flat, as control and command might improve somewhat thanks to shedding a fringe pitch, but not to a degree where the rate of free passes allowed is going to drop significantly.
Looking at Bard's Red Sox career as a reliever through the lens of 17 yields promising results: his strikeout rate would fall from 26.7 to 22.2 percent, his home run rate would rise from 3.2 percent of balls in play to 3.7 percent, and his BABIP would sit at roughly .263 rather than .246. The league average strikeout rate by percentage was 18.6 in 2011; home runs as a percentage of balls in play, 3.4 percent; BABIP, .291. He might give up an extra home run or two than average, but other than that, those numbers come out looking like he would make a successful starter.
Again, more encouraging results but I still wasn't convinced. One of my biggest doubts about Bard's ability to be a starter was whether or not he could be successful without a proven third pitch. Bard has a fastball, a slider and a changeup, but he's only thrown that change up 5.4 percent of the time. So I researched pitchers who demonstrated a similar pitch selection.
The most similar pitchers I found in 2011 were Alexi Ogando, Clayton Kershaw and Cory Leubke. All three threw a fastball more than 64 percent of the time, threw a slider more than 24 percent of the time and threw a changeup less than 7 percent of the time. And all three had positive results.
But what about Bard's failed attempt as a starter in the minor leagues? In 2007, Bard began his minor league career as a starter and allowed 59 earned runs over 75 innings (7.08 ERA) between Single-A Greenville and Single-A Lancaster. He was then promptly made into a reliever where he found immediate success.
But in reviewing Bard's history in the minor leagues I found that he has since changed his delivery and added a slider, which has become his second best pitch. So it's not really fair to judge him on what he did with a different delivery and without his second best pitch.
No one truly knows what kind of a starting pitcher will be in 2012, if he in fact is allowed to try out the experiment. But what would it hurt to try it out? Worst-case scenario, Bard does not work out as a starting pitcher, he moves back to the bullpen and the Red Sox have one of the best bullpens in baseball.
In this case, the Red Sox could replace him with Alfredo Aceves, Felix Doubront or a minor league fill in like Brandon Duckworth. Daisuke Matsuzaka is due back from injury some time in June and he could pick up right where he left off being a mediocre fifth starter.
Best-case scenario, the Boston Red Sox groom Bard to be the top-of-the-rotation starter that they thought they drafted in 2006.
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