If you missed it late last night, veteran sinker-baller Aaron Cook hurled an efficient 81-pitch shutout for the Boston Red Sox in Seattle. Cook is pitching in one of the starting pitching spots which was slotted at the beginning of the season for Daniel Bard.
Bard, meanwhile, finds himself in Pawtucket. His troubles with his mechanics are a carry-over from last September. His fastball, once tantalizingly tickling 100 mph on a consistent basis, now resides in the 90-92 mph neighborhood. More troubling, his fastball has been finding its way to the netting behind the catcher nightly. His curveball/slider has been digging a swath around home plate or planting itself in the ribs of opposing batters.
This is the same pitcher who didn’t give up a single run in 25 appearances from May 27- July 31 just last year. Going into the final two months, Bard had a 1.76 ERA to go along with a league-leading 25 holds (a setup man’s equivalent of saves). But then something happened.
In August, he had two bad outings, but still only walked two batters in 11 IP. September, however, Bard was emblematic of Boston’s historic collapse. Bard walked nine batters in an identical 11 IP while giving up 13 earned runs (10.64 ERA).
At least he still had the overpowering heater which set him apart from many pitchers in the league. That singular talent made Bard an appealing option for Red Sox management to convert him to a starting pitcher during the offseason. The change would allow the Red Sox to maximize the amount of innings Bard could be used.
My philosophy (“Red Sox unprepared for second straight year”) is simple, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” For the last three seasons, Bard was seemingly being groomed to replace Papelbon as closer once Papelbon’s contract expired. When the time arrived, Bard was taken from his comfort zone and jerked into the starting rotation.
Bard showed a few glimpses of becoming a C.J. Wilson or Chris Sale type dominant reliever- converted to dominant starter success story. But there were also some warning signs, such as the seven walks he gave up in his second start despite only giving up one earned run against Tampa.
Things came to a head when he walked six batters in less than two innings in his final start in Toronto. It may prove to be his final start ever for the Red Sox. Bard has finally come to grips that the bullpen is where he belongs. More importantly, the question now is, “Will Bard ever make it back to Boston, period?”
The answer should be, “Yes.” But history has some examples of players who, inexplicably, just lost “it.”
Rick Ankiel was a promising young lefty flamethrower. In 2000, at the age of 21, Ankiel struck out 194 batters in 175 innings while compiling a respectable 3.50 ERA. A year later, his ERA was 7.13 after walking 25 batters in 24 IP. And he walked batters in spectacular fashion, often finding the backstop with his heaters.
More recently, Hong-Chih Kuo was a promising Taiwanese pitcher for the Dodgers. In 2009, Kuo had a sparkling 1.20 ERA out of the Dodgers’ bullpen, while striking out 73 in 60 IP. He walked only 18 batters that season. A year later, at the age of 29, Kuo had a 9.00 ERA after walking 23 batters in only 27 innings. His control was so bad that sometimes games would have to be delayed in order to retrieve some of his errant pitches from the bullpens located down the foul lines. Kuo was placed on the disabled list with an anxiety disorder in May of that season. Kuo has never been the same since. He was released by the Mariners earlier this season and just signed a minor league contract with the Cubs earlier this month.
While I think Bard will someday return to Boston, I worry about his psyche. Boston has the luxury of waiting for Bard to try and rediscover himself. Their bullpen has been one of the best in the majors since the opening month. In April, there was discussion of replacing a struggling Alfredo Aceves with Bard as closer. Now, Bard will be lucky if he ever assumes his old 8th-inning primary set-up role.
Aceves has been very good as closer, notching 18 saves. Vicente Padilla has been solid in Bard’s old role, recording 17 holds. Scott Atchison (1.54 ERA) has been surprisingly effective, even inciting a little All-Star buzz. Even Matt Albers has been pretty good.
If and when Andrew Bailey returns, presumably in another month or so, Aceves moves to the eighth inning and Padilla to the seventh. Where does that leave Bard?
First and foremost, Bard needs to get himself straightened out. Maybe, more appropriately, he needs to get his pitches straightened out. While I think he may make it back to Boston at some point, I think this year is a lost cause. He will not be a factor.
Looking at next year and beyond, I fear Bard has been irrevocably harmed by this starter/reliever indecision. I view Bard’s psyche as being very fragile. His drop in velocity is troubling. Bard is in need of help with his mechanics. Why have pitching coaches like Curt Young and Bob McClure not been able to find the flaw in his mechanics? Is there really anyone in Pawtucket that can help him?
Pawtucket manager Arnie Beyeler said following Bard’s most recent meltdown, “He just doesn’t feel it, I guess.” You guess??
Brian McPherson of the Providence Journal goes on to quote Beyeler as saying, “He just can’t repeat with consistency, which is why he is here, and then you see the wheels start spinning and things kind of snowball.” The snowballing part speaks to the fragile psyche of which I wrote earlier.
I think the Red Sox screwed up Bard’s head. He never had success in the minors as a starter. He was, at one point, one of the best set-up men in the majors. I feel bad for Bard. He tasted success and he was on the verge of developing into one of the elite closers in all of baseball. Now, instead of saving games, Bard will be lucky if he can save his career.