The Red Sox moving Daniel Bard to the rotation has been a hotly debated move in Red Sox Nation this spring. But after two starts, it’s clear that Boston at least had the right idea in letting Bard move from the bullpen back to the starting rotation, where he threw in college and at the outset of his pro career. Bard has had a bit of an issue with issuing free passes, but has otherwise had positive showings in his first two times through the rotation.
One of the most important questions for any pitcher is can he throw strikes? If you can’t throw strikes, you’re going to make things really difficult for yourself, no matter how much talent you have. So naturally, people are going to question that ability when you walk seven batters in a single game, as Bard did today against the Tampa Bay Rays. In each start, Bard showed a good ability to keep the ball in the zone in the early part of each game, before faltering in the middle innings.
Today against the Rays, Bard had four walks through six innings — which is not great, mind you — before walking three of the last four batters he faced in the seventh. It was clear that Bard was laboring, but Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine left him in to face Evan Longoria with the bases loaded in a tie game nonetheless (Valentine admitted this was a mistake after the game). And while Bard only walked one batter in his first start against Toronto, a quick look at his strike percentage by inning shows that he has had more trouble finding the zone as the game has moved along. In innings one through three, Bard’s strike percentage is 65.3 percent. From the fourth inning on, it is just 58.7 percent.
Now, this is two starts, and a grand total of 207 pitches, and when we break it down by innings, you come up with an even smaller sample. But so far, it looks like Bard’s control issues may be attributable to the fact that he is still building up the stamina to be a starter. After walking 4.01 batters per nine innings in 2009, Bard lowered his mark over the past two years — his BB/9 dropped to 3.62 in 2010, and was 2.96 last year — so it’s not as if he has been wild all that much recently. If we reach June or July and Bard is still having problems throwing strikes after the first few innings, then that might be more of a cause for concern, but at the moment, it is an acceptable issue.
The reason it is acceptable is because of the ridiculous stuff Bard has displayed. In the past, Bard has been a three-pitch guy — four-seam fastball, slider and changeup — and that appears to still be the case (the guys at Brooks Baseball reclassified some of the four-seamers and changeups from his first start to sinkers, so that will bear watching, but for now we’ll work off of the raw Pitch f/x logs found here and here). The slider is the most impressive of the bunch. While noting that continuous use of a slider may not be the best thing for a pitcher’s arm, Bard’s slider has been so impressive that it would be a crime for him not to throw it with the frequency he has in the first two outings.
It’s no secret that Bard has a good slider, of course. Among the 197 pitchers who tossed at least 70 innings last year, Bard’s 1.72 wSL/C mark (Pitch f/x numbers) ranked 28th overall. It’s hard to know how a pitcher’s stuff will translate when he changes roles though, so his success thus far is encouraging. This season, he has thrown 75 sliders — which accounts for 36.2 percent of his workload — and has generated swings and misses a ridiculous 20 percent of the time. For context, the league average swinging strike percentage the past three seasons has either been 8.5 or 8.6 percent, and thus far in 2012 it has been nine percent (those are Baseball Info Solutions numbers, and Bard’s data is Pitch f/x, but the differences shouldn’t be that drastic). In his first two starts, Bard’s slider literally generated more than double the swings and misses over the league average. Again, it’s early, and hitters are going to adjust, but his slider so far has been impressive.
Bard has also generated above-average swings and misses on his fastball and changeup, but his fastball today was less effective. In each outing, coincidentally, he threw 49 fastballs as classified by Pitch f/x. In his first outing, 39 of them went for strikes, with eight being swinging strikes. In today’s outing, only 28 of them went for strikes, with just four swinging strikes. Bard was well aware of this after the game, calling his fastball command “terrible.” While terrible may not be the most accurate word to describe it, there is certainly room for improvement.
Daniel Bard has started two games, and took the loss in both. For some, that will be enough to deem his conversion an immediate failure. Look past that though, and you can see that Bard has shown positives, and that the main negative may be fixable. He is generating a good rate of swings and misses on all of his pitches, but particularly on his nasty slider. He needs to work on keeping the ball in the strike zone — nobody wants to see seven-walk starts become a habit — but part of the issue may simply be that he needs to build up stamina as a starter. The jury is still out, but at this point in the young season, moving Bard to the rotation looks like the right move.