When the Angels selected Luke Bard in December’s Rule 5 draft, they acquired a pitcher who is stylistically different than the right-hander Minnesota took in the first round of the 2012 amateur draft. The younger brother of former Red Sox flamethrower Daniel Bard is no longer looking to induce ground balls. He’s looking to blow away hitters with belt-high heaters.
He did plenty of that last year between Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Rochester. Armed with his new data-driven attack plan, Bard augmented his 2.76 ERA with 99 punch outs in 65.1 innings of relief work. His 13.6 K/9 far exceeded his previous personal best, which was a pedestrian 8.1 against Low-A hitters in 2015.
What prompted the change from sinkerballer to power pitcher? The 27-year-old Georgia Tech product learned that he has elite spin rate. As a result, his two-seamer is now in his back pocket and his modus operandi is four-seam explosion.
Whether or not he remains an Angel, or ends up being offered back to the Twins, remains to be seen. Either way, Bard has evolved, and he has Statcast to thank.
Luke Bard: “I was a sinkerball pitcher all through college and for my first several years of pro ball, and I got a lot of ground balls, but I never got the swings and misses. I would see guys who didn’t throw as hard as me and go, ‘How are they getting swings and misses on their fastball?’ Then I started learning about spin rate and realized I was throwing high-spin sinkers.
“For my whole life, I thought my sinker was a great pitch. It got me ground balls. I could see it move. Catchers would tell me I threw a heavy ball. All of those things were put into my mind that I should be throwing sinkers. But again, while there was movement, there weren’t a lot of swings and misses. I’d have an outing where I’d get three ground balls and two of them went through. Afterwards I’d be thinking, ‘I did what I wanted to — I got ground balls — but I gave up a run. How’s that?’”
“I did a bunch of reading online and started wondering if I should be pitching up in the zone. The [Twins] had never told me what my spin rate was. I ended up going to a video guy of ours on my own, a guy younger than me, and asked, ‘Do you have the data, the small sample size of it?’
“I looked up the spin rates of major leaguers, and mine was higher than theirs. [Bard’s four-seam spin rate was an eye-opening 2,730 last season.] So I learned, and kind of experimented. This was in 2016, in High-A, although I didn’t completely abandon my sinker until last spring training. I went to camp and threw all four-seamers. Any time I got ahead I would throw at the belt instead of the knees. I started getting a ton of swings and misses, so I stuck with it. Last year, I struck out more guys than I ever had.
“The velo is the same as my sinker — low to mid-90s — but the lesser-quality swings are pretty evident. So are the results. Going to all four-seamers has definitely helped my command. I can go right after hitters, and once I get ahead I can kind of keep climbing the ladder.
“My other pitch is a slider, and when I’m throwing it for a strike it starts at the belt or a little above. That plays well off my high fastball. The hitter has to look for one or the other, because I don’t think he can be ready for both of those pitches.
“My brother, Daniel, had a high spin. He’s working with the Diamondbacks now [as a player mentor], and we talk about it a ton. When he was playing — and this wasn’t even that long ago — spin rate wasn’t really a thing. They were just starting to get into it. He threw a lot of two-seamers even though he was a high-spin guy. Not knowing that, he just tried to throw it as hard as he could.
“When I told Daniel what I was doing, he pretty much said, ‘You’re using your stuff the right way; it’s going to play better for you.’ The game has kind of changed. There are numbers on your stuff that tell you how you should pitch. Basically, I learned about spin rate and now I’m using my stuff the right way.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.