Daniel Bard might be the final piece to the Boston Red Sox starting rotation. He may not be. The issue of Daniel Bard’s role on the 2012 has dominated much of the off-season and Spring Training. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that Daniel Bard is an excellent pitcher. In three years in the Boston bullpen, he has 2.88 ERA and a 3.22 FIP. He has struck out 9.73 per nine and generated 48.6% ground balls. Control is something of a problem for him, as he has a career 3.47 BB/9 rate, which is not great but not nearly enough to be a stumbling block in either role. With one the fastest average heaters in baseball, Bard has already made himself one of the game’s elite relievers. Now, he is trying to make himself an elite starter.
While it would be overly optimistic to assume that he can translate his relief numbers into the starter’s role without some change, Bard has the potential to be an above average starter and if he can realize that potential, adding him to the rotation would be the equivalent of a major free agent signing or a blockbuster trade. In fact, the projection systems that have Bard projected as a starter credit him with similar ERA and FIP projections as Gio Gonzalez, who cost the Nationals five valuable prospects in trade. While there are many reasons for concern, the upside remains too appealing for the Red Sox to ignore.
Much of the concern with Daniel Bard’s ability to be a starting pitcher is centered on his lack of secondary pitches. As a reliever, Bard threw a four-seam fastball and a slider with the occasional change up used against lefties. He threw his fastball harder and more often than almost any other pitcher in the game. At 97.4 mph his four-seamer is among the best in the game and so it is no surprise that he has thrown it 67-70% of the time. It is a relatively straight pitch with a large rise. Despite the rise, it induces a large number of ground balls. That ground ball movement is key to his transition into a starting pitcher. With his high walk rates, Bard needs to use his fastball to help him work efficiently and to get extra double plays when he can. If his GB% stays close to 50%, that will be a good sign in that he can stick in the starter’s role.
Bard has gotten by with just one reliable secondary pitch because that pitch, his slider, is extremely effective. Bard has thrown his slider around 20-23% of the time. It features extreme horizontal movement with little drop. Averaging 84 mph, it is 14 mph slower than his fastball, making it a effective change of speed as well as a sharp breaker. He keeps the pitch away from both lefties and righties to some degree. He gets an excellent 17.1% whiff rate with it and it gets put into play just 9.2% of the time. If ever there was a secondary pitch a player could solely depend on, it would be Bard’s slider.
While there has been a lot of talk about his need to develop a change up, Bard has thrown one for the past two seasons. He threw the pitch 7.1% of the time last year and everyone of those pitches came against a lefty. At 90 mph, his change is a good deal faster than his slider, but it moves in the opposite direction, breaking to the catcher’s left hand even more than his fastball. Used as it has been, it is a very effective pitch, with a 16.1% whiff rate. Given it’s speed and movement, it will likely remain a pitch used almost entirely against lefties, but should he mix it in against righties, he will likely throw it to the same place, trusting the change is speed and movement in on righties to lead to hitter’s pulling it foul or swinging ahead of it.
Bard has also spoken about using a two-seam fastball this spring. It would make since to see him develop a secondary fastball grip as a starter. With his velocity, Bard could do well with a two-seamer moving in on righties and away from lefties to compliment his four-seamer. It will be interesting to watch if this pitch does become a regular offering from the hard-throwing 26 year old.
The success or failure of Daniel Bard as a starter depends on a large number of factors, so of which are not in his control. However, the biggest factors are all things the pitcher can do. He needs to keep the exceptional ground ball rates he had shown as a reliever. He needs to keep the walks in check, close to or better than his established 3.47 rate and he needs to attack hitters, letting his stuff do what it always has, but focusing on efficiency, getting through 7-8 innings in around 100 pitches. While not everything has come together yet this Spring Training, he has shown all of those skills at different times and it appears now that he will be rewarded with the fifth starter’s role for that.