On Sunday, Daniel Bard faced thirteen Blue Jays — he got four outs, walked six, hit two more, and gave up a home run for good measure. Despite that being the only hit he allowed, he gave up five runs, putting a cap on the disaster that has been his experiment as a starting pitcher. Given that he’s either walked or beaned 18 percent of the batters he’s faced this year, it’s pretty easy to say that Bard’s primary issue has been command. That’s hard to argue with — after all, on May 29, he threw a pitch that “missed the center of the strike zone by more than a full Shaquille O’Neal.”
So, it’s fairly simple to say that Daniel Bard’s lack of command has betrayed him, and his inability to throw strikes with consistency has been his primary problem. Simple, but maybe not accurate. Instead, I wonder if perhaps Bard’s insanely high walk rates aren’t actually just a symptom of the real problem.
For your visual enjoyment, here is a plot of every pitcher whose average fastball velocity this year is lower than it was last year.
I bet you can pick out the little blue dot that represents Daniel Bard. He’s the lonely little icon in the lower left hand corner, hanging out all by himself with a reduction in average fastball speed of 4.2 MPH. Last year, only three pitchers in baseball — Henry Rodriguez, Aroldis Chapman, and Jordan Walden — threw harder than Bard. This year, Bard is throwing about as hard as Vin Mazzaro, Jeff Gray, and Jeremy Guthrie.
Now, with any conversion from relief to the rotation, you expect some loss of velocity, but it’s generally more in the 1-2 MPH range than the 4+ MPH range. Jeff Samardzija (-0.2 MPH), Lance Lynn (-0.6 MPH), and Neftali Feliz (-1.6 MPH) are all throwing with a little less oomph than they did in the bullpen, while only Chris Sale also experiencing a major decline in fastball speed. Of course, Sale is dominating the American League right now, showing that there’s not a perfect relationship between loss of velocity and decline in performance, but even his large decline in velocity doesn’t begin to approach the massive change that Bard has undergone.
The loss in velocity has rendered Bard’s repertoire significantly less effective even when he does manage to throw it for strikes, leading to a significant decline in his ability to get swinging strikes — last year, his SwStr% was 11.0%, but this year it’s just 7.9%. Now, you might think that this could just be a result of him constantly falling behind batters, allowing them to take pitches they woud have chased if the count was different, but Bard is actually throwing more first pitch strikes this year (57.6%) than he did a year ago (55.2%).
This isn’t to say that Bard’s command isn’t a serious problem. He’s already gotten into 27 3-0 counts this year after just getting into 10 last season, so there are certainly times when he just loses his release point and is incapable of throwing the ball anywhere near the plate. However, PITCHF/x has classifed 49.4% of his pitches this year as being in the strike zone, putting him directly in between Cole Hamels and CC Sabathia in terms of in-zone pitches. Bard’s not so wild that he simply cannot throw enough strikes — he’s just not getting the kinds of strikes he needs, and when he gets ahead in counts, he’s not able to put batters away like he did as a reliever — specifically, his performance on pitches in 1-2 counts has been dramatically worse.
1-2 counts, 2011: 56 PA, 6 H, 1 HR, 40 K, .289 OPS
1-2 counts, 2012: 29 PA, 8 H, 1 HR, 7 K, .863 OPS
When behind in the count, opposing batters have hit .253/.286/.430 against Bard this year. Last year, when they were behind in the count, they hit .110/.118/.156. Daniel Bard The Reliever would throw strike one, then punish hitters with untouchable fastballs and a power slider. Daniel Bard The Starter throws strike one, then throws a mediocre fastball or a slider that opposing batters easily recognize as a pitch they don’t need to chase. The at-bat continues and a potential walk that never would have materialized comes to fruition. Indeed, many of Bard’s walks are simply the result of at-bats lasting longer this year than they did last year.
Daniel Bard has never had very good command, and this year, it’s gotten worse. But, velocity and strike throwing are not independent, and Bard would probably feel a lot more confident pounding the zone if his fastball was 97 instead of 93. There were some legitimate reasons to try Bard as a starter, and as Samardzija, Lynn, and Sale have shown, these conversions can produce very positive results. For whatever reason, though, Bard’s velocity didn’t make the translation to the rotation, and right now, he doesn’t have the stuff to make up for his control issues.
Whether the solution is to put Bard back in the bullpen or to send him to Triple-A in order to try and work out the kinks is up to the Red Sox to decide, but at this point, it should be clear that something needs to be done. Daniel Bard The Starter is not currently a Major League pitcher, and a team trying to get back in the playoff race can’t afford to hand him the ball again.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.