Following the trade that sent Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to the Houston Astros for Mark Malenan, Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherington made the following statement (as reported by WEEI’s Alex Speier); “… I told Mark on the phone when I talked to him, we believe he can close. We believe he can close for us,” There’s certainly a scenario where he is our closer. If the season opened tomorrow, that’s what he’d be doing.” This statement was further confirmation that the Red Sox are going to move forward with their plan to convert one-time closer in waiting, Daniel Bard, to a starter. With Jonathan Papelbon shipping off for Philly, the loss of Bard from the bullpen has some fans and writers up in arms. The logic against this move is simple; Daniel Bard is Boston’s best reliever with Papelbon gone and the team needs a strong bullpen to compete is the toughest division in baseball.
As simple as that logic is, it is also flawed. The question is not as simple as it appears as bullpen performance and starting performance are heavily intertwined and the addition of a quality starter will impact the bullpen as well as the rotation. Consider this: Boston had the best bullpen by in all of baseball fWAR last season and the best bullpen FIP in the American League, yet the team’s starters had the fourth worst FIP and the sixth worst fWAR total. The end result was a bullpen that finished second in innings pitched, behind the Orioles. The extra work in the bullpen did not just go to Bard and Papelbon, who ranked 2nd and fourth on the team in relief innings, respectively. All that extra work went to players like Matt Albers, Dan Wheeler, Franklin Morales and Scott Atchison, who combined for less wins than Daniel Bard alone. As the season slipped away in September, that bullpen had to handle too much of the workload. If Boston fixes the rotation, it will also fix the pen, subtracting at least 50-70 innings that will go to less than capable pitchers.
There are many reasons to believe that Bard will be able to an above average starter and as such he will be far more valuable that all but a few relievers. He has an exceptional ground ball rate (52.7% last season) and a fastball that rates among the league’s best in velocity. He gets strikeouts at an elite level (9.73 career K/9) and doesn’t have the extreme walk rates many other flame throwing relievers carry (his 3.47 BB/9 are near average). With his propensity for grounders he can survive a slight drop in his strikeouts and still be a very effective starter and there is no comparison in terms of value between a decent starter and a reliever. Last season, 40 starters topped 3 wins by fWAR while only two relievers, the Atlanta Braves’ Craig Kimbrel and Papelbon managed that feat. As good as Bard was last season, 58 starters were more valuable than he was by Fangraph’s system. If Daniel Bard can best pitchers like Livan Hernandez, Charlie Morton and Luke Hochevar, he will should join the rotation. Does any really think he will be worse than Livan Hernandez?
The biggest concern in turning Bard into a starter is his innings count. As a reliever, Bard has pitched 197 innings over three seasons at the major league level. That is one season’s workload for a starter, ideally. Coming off a 2010 season where he pitched 74.2 innings and a 2011 season where he pitched 73 innings, it is possible that a cap will need to be set to keep him healthy long term. The Verducci Effect, which states that pitchers under 25 who increase their workload by more than 30 innings tend to underperform or get injured, is often sighted in connection with Bard’s possible transform and its limits. Daniel Bard is not under 25, however, he is going to be 27 as of June 25th. Oddly enough that might be the best reason to convert him.
In last year’s The Hardball Times Annual, Craig Wright expanded a seminal piece on handling pitchers from his book The Diamond Appraised and his work is extremely relevant to Bard’s case. This piece is highly detailed and should be considered a must-read for serious baseball nuts, but for our purposes, I will recap a few central points: First, it is dangerous to a pitcher’s long term health and success for him to pitch too many innings before his joints and ligaments fully mature (around age 25) and the same applies to pitch counts per start. Second, and most importantly, Wright argues that properly developed and well conditioned pitchers can be capable of up to 300 innings ( and no, that is not a typo).
Wright explores the career of the most durable pitcher of recent times (and perhaps of all time) Nolan Ryan in depth. The major takeaway is that Ryan pitched very few innings in his formative years despite breaking in as a starter at age 19 and after that point he has the most durable pitcher imaginable in his era. Like Ryan, fate has limited Daniel Bard’s innings as a young professional while still giving him the experience against major league hitters he needs. While he almost certainly cannot pitch 200 innings next season, he does have the precise developmental profile Wright wants and with four years of arbitration controlling his cost, the chance that he could be an extremely durable starter with four years of team control is too good to pass up. Further, his limits for 2011 do not need to be ruled by the Verducci effect and should be able to reach at least double the 73 innings he pitched last season.
Even if we make the simplistic assumption that Bard will see his FIP (3.22 career) rise half a run in his conversion to a starter he would be significantly more valuable to Boston. 146 innings of a 3.77 FIP starter would be worth around 3.2 wins, almost a win and a half better than he was last year. If he were to reach 180 innings at that modest level he would be worth more than double his value in his best season as a reliever. If he managed to maintain his strikeout, walk and home run rates entirely through the conversion, he would top every Boston starter in 2011 except Josh Beckett in value in just 135 innings. Translate his stuff perfectly to 180 innings and the move would be equivalent to acquiring Matt Garza.
The only real reason to keep Daniel Bard in the bullpen is a decline in his performance as a result of being a starter. Boston will need to test him to know he is the same pitcher when throwing 100 pitches on five days as he has been throwing 20-25 on erratic rest. If he can still dial up a mid-nineties fastball and work his slider and change in and out of the zone, he will soon make everyone forget they ever opposed his conversion. Until he is actually given the chance, there is no reason to think it won’t work. With Bard as a starter, Boston might being adding the best starter available on a four year deal at absolutely no added cost. Who doesn’t want that?