Take a dominant reliever who can throw 98 mph for two innings and convert him into a starter. Although nobody really knew how this was going to work out for Daniel Bard and the Red Sox, the disastrous end results were less surprising if you looked inside the numbers.
Bard spent five years as a reliever, two in the minor leagues and three as Boston's primary set-up man from 2009-2011. Before that, however, he had one season as a starter and was even more ineffective then than he has been this season.
During 2007, his first year in professional ball, Bard split the year between two Boston Class A clubs in Greenville, SC, and Lancaster, CA. He went 3-7 with a 7.08 ERA in 22 games (all starts) and allowed 78 walks and 75 hits over 75 innings—an almost unfathomable 2.053 WHIP. He struck out just 47 batters and managed to hit eight of them.
The Boston organization did the logical thing with the 22-year-old right-hander and turned him into a reliever. Over the next two years, he was absolutely lights-out with an ERA below 2.00 each season and combined totals of 136 strikeouts and 35 walks over 93.2 innings. He let up just 48 hits during this span and was equally effective as a closer and set-up man.
Most people figured this is how things would remain once Bard came up to the majors, and for a while, this was true. Jonathan Papelbon was entrenched as Boston's ace closer, so Bard became his set-up man and thrived in the role.
The only smudge on Bard's resume was that he seemed to tire late in the season, never more so in 2011, when his ERA went from 2.05 in the first half to 5.28 in the second. So when Papelbon bolted to Philadelphia for a bigger contract this offseason, it only seemed logical that Bard take his place. His innings were likely go down a bit as a closer, and he could throw more blazing fastballs.
The Red Sox, however, went in another direction—some speculate for cost-cutting reasons. They acquired closer Andrew Bailey from the Oakland A's to take Pap's place and announced that Bard would be moving to the starting rotation (where several spots were opening up with Tim Wakefield's retirement and Tommy John surgery for John Lackey). Then, even after Bard struggled mightily in his new role and Bailey went down with a thumb injury in spring training, they kept Bard in the rotation and designated Alfredo Aceves as the closer.
What happened next has been well-documented. Aceves faltered out of the gate, had a hot stretch and has been up-and-down of late—definitely a heart-attack closer. Bard, on the other hand, has been more of a flatline starter with no pulse at all.
His stats are atrocious—a 5.24 ERA, a 1.618 WHIP and a league-leading eight hit batsmen in 55 innings—but even more alarming are his mechanics. As numerous analysts have pointed out, Bard seems to be throwing with a different motion on practically every other pitch.
His fastball, once a sure high-90s howitzer, is now peaking at closer to 93 and is much more hittable. After averaging more than a strikeout an inning for three years, he has recorded just 34 in his 55 innings this season. He has been especially ineffective with runners on base and the third time through the order—not things you want from a starter.
The "experiment" reached its low point on Sunday, when Bard allowed six walks and hit two batters while lasting less than two innings at Toronto. The usually quiet hurler opened up after this debacle, telling reporters (via Boston.com), "I think it's just maybe we tried to turn me into a starter rather than take the same pitcher I was out of the pen and just move that guy to the rotation, which is probably what should have been done. It's partially my fault—it's all my fault. Maybe it's just a matter of getting back to what I had success doing in the past."
Does this mean sending Bard back to the bullpen, which has been fantastic of late (despite Aceves' unpredictability)? It seems a bad move to upset the apple cart there, especially since the pen is already going to be undergoing a makeover when Bailey comes off the disabled list.
Bard sounds open to reworking his mechanics to solve the problem, but that's tough to do in the middle of a major league season. Plus, the starting rotation also has a rehabbing player coming back in Daisuke Matsuzaka. Could a trip to the minors—perhaps taking Matsuzaka's rotation spot at Triple-A Pawtucket—be the answer?
It's not clear yet what the Red Sox have in mind for Bard, but the decision could have a major impact on the rest of Boston's season. What would you do?
Saul Wisnia lives less than seven miles from Fenway Park and works 300 yards from Yawkey Way. His latest book, Fenway Park: The Centennial, is available at amazon.com and his Red Sox reflections can be found at http://saulwisnia.blogspot.com/. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @saulwizz.