2010 Red Sox Preview: Closer in Training Daniel Bard Heating Up

Jeffrey BrownAnalyst IFebruary 24, 2010

It was the summer of 2008. The first time I saw Daniel Bard pitch, he was holding down the back end of the Portland Sea Dogs (Double-A) bullpen.

He was summoned in the eighth inning of a close contest between the Sea Dogs and the NH Fisher Cats (TOR) with runners in scoring position.

From my perch in the third base dugout at MerchantsAuto.com Stadium in Manchester, NH, I took a couple photos as Bard warmed up and then snapped one more picture as he threw his first pitch.

When I heard the ball pop the glove of C Mark Wagner, I quickly turned toward left-center field. The scoreboard said 97 mph. I didn’t put the camera back to my eye for the next pitch...I feared I might miss something. He threw the next pitch...THWACK!

98 mph!

I made a comment about the speed to Tim Hough, the Media Relations Assistant for the Fisher Cats. He leaned over and told me that they were using the slow gun that day...he said I should add three to four mph to the reading on the scoreboard to determine the actual speed.

I had never before seen a pitch that registered 100-plus mph in person. Before his outing was completed he threw two more pitches at 100 or more mph. I was awestruck. He didn’t appear to be exerting himself, yet there was that sound again. THWACK!

It seemed to me to be a near certainty he would find himself in a big league uniform by the end of the 2009 season. I interviewed him the next day and asked him when he thought he might get promoted to the Red Sox. He replied he had no idea, but said he hoped it would be “sooner rather than later.”

[You can see the three installments of my interview with him here: Part I , Part II , and Part III ]

Needless to say, he got the anticipated promotion and had an outstanding debut in the big leagues. He says he wants to be a closer but understands he will need to cut his teeth working in a setup role: “So many good closers have come through in a setup role. (Mariano) Rivera did it, and others have done it as well. (It’s) a logical progression as far as working your way into (the closer’s role).”

He compliments his high-90s fastball with a high-90s sinker, 88-mph changeup, and 85-mph slider. He threw the fastball most often (73 percent of the time), though an analysis of Pitch f/x data indicates his slider was easily his most effective pitch. Ironically though, as the season wore on and the games became more important, he relied less and less on the slider.

He seldom used his changeup due to his inability to locate the pitch with consistency, but he'll be working on throwing the pitch for strikes throughout spring training. (See Bard’s fangraphs.com page here. )

Asked if he thinks he’s ready to close out games, he said, “I don’t think you can truly tell if a guy is a closer or not until you put him in that role. As a reliever, if you want to be the best, then you want to be a closer.... That’s my goal. I don’t know if it will happen here or somewhere else, but two, three, or five years down the line, that’s the ultimate goal.”

When GM Theo Epstein was asked the same question, he said, “(Bard) is a work in progress.”

Bard had moments of brilliance in his rookie campaign but also struggled at times. He was much better during the first half of the season (a 2.55 ERA) than in the second half (4.74 ERA), leading some folks to wonder whether he tired or whether opposing hitters may have figured him out.

IMO, it seems likely the second half split is an aberration—his xERA was a solid 2.52. His skewed numbers likely result, in part, from an aberrant HR/FB ratio of 23 percent in the second half (twice the league average).

Prior to playing toss in Ft. Myers, the last image we have of him is a bases-loaded, no-outs situation in Game Three of the ALDS. In the second postseason game of his career, he entered the ballgame with the Sox leading by four, but the LA Angels had the bases loaded and no one out. He allowed an inherited runner to score but escaped further damage.

His final numbers last year were quite acceptable (49.1 IP, 3.65 ERA, 63 strikeouts).

When you combine those numbers with his postseason performance, you have got to believe that he has done what he needs to establish himself as the primary setup guy entering the 2010 season.

He certainly thinks so: “To some extent, you feel like you’ve proven that you can perform on that level and on the playoff stage. I think it gives (the manager and coaching staff) some assurance of what they’re going to get.”

So, what kind of numbers will he put up in 2010? As I’ve mentioned previously in this series, I am not a devotee of the most widely used projection systems: CHONE, Bill James, and PECOTA. They all have problems.

CHONE projections tend to be strong for hitters but weak for pitchers. The PECOTA system has the opposite problem—it is strong for pitchers but weak for hitters. And while Bill James is well known and an employee of the Red Sox, his annual projections are consistently overly optimistic.

I prefer the work done by Ron Shandler (who is the godfather of "fanalytics") and Mike Podhorzer (the new kid on the block).

Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster is must-reading for any baseball fan, especially if he/she is a fantasy baseball aficionado. Shandler and his minions do great work. They can be found at BaseballHeadquarters.com .

Podhorzer’s predictions at fantasypros911.com went 42-0 when compared head-to-head with other projection systems last year. Seriously, folks, if you don’t know about fantasypros911.com , it’s time that you take a look. Great stuff!

So what do these two systems project for Bard for the upcoming season?

Shandler: 4-2, three saves, 3.01 ERA, 1.23 WHIP...66 IP, 83 K
Podhorzer: six wins, two saves, 3.20 ERA, 1.20 WHIP...70 IP, 82 K

As for me, I think his second-half numbers were due more to fatigue than having been figured out. I doubt that 23 percent of his fly balls will go for home runs over an extended period of time (if at all).

SOX1FAN projection: 5-2, three saves, 2.85 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 68 IP, 90 K


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