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Daniel Bard’s Undefined Role

In 2011, Jonathan Papelbon was entering the last year of his contract with the Boston Red Sox without the two sides managing to work out an extension to keep him as closer for the future. It wasn’t cemented that Papelbon was gone, but there was a good deal of speculation that Daniel Bard was the heir apparent to the fireman’s role as he was coming off a dominant 2010 campaign.

When Papelbon recently signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, many assumed that the Boston brass would summarily anoint Bard as closer and move on to more pressing issues in the starting rotation and trying to find a right fielder, but there was no such announcement. In fact, when Daniel Bard’s name was brought up, it was mentioned that while he may be a candidate for the closer role, he might also stay in his familiar set-up job, or they just might try him out as a starter.

The starting role possibility was news to me, and and in looking at his minor league starts, it turns out there’s a pretty good reason why. Daniel Bard was a terrible minor league starting pitcher.

Bard has had college success as a starter, but nothing particularly eye-popping. He was drafted out of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where he was used almost exclusively as a starting pitcher for all of his three seasons there between 2004 and 2006. He finished with a career 47-45 record with a 3.86 ERA over 270 IP and a 7.83 K/9 and 3.56 BB/9.

The Red Sox moved him into the rotation of their affiliate in the South Atlantic Division where he struggled mightily with his control over 61.2 IP and his walks per nine innings pitched was 8.2 to go with just a 5.5 K/9. Nevertheless, they moved him up to the California League that same year where he absolutely unraveled with a 10.12 ERA and nearly 15 BB/9 over five games started. On the whole in 2007, Bard made 22 starts with a 7.08 ERA over 75 IP, giving up 76 hits, striking out 47 and walking, ahem, 78 batters. That was the last time Daniel Bard started a baseball game.

From that point on, he absolutely dominated in 2008 and 2009, earning a call-up mid-May of 2009, where he continued to bully hitters to the tune of a 3.38 FIP with a 11.49 K/9 and quickly established himself as a go-to candidate in high leverage situations throughout his three major league seasons. Over roughly 200 major league innings pitched, all as a reliever, Bard has allowed just 132 hits, amassed a 2.88 ERA (3.22 FIP), a 1.06 WHIP, and struck out 213 batters (9.73 K/9).

Why wouldn’t they want him to serve as closer? Perhaps without such a title, they’re communicating to Bard that they plan to use him in the highest leverage situations, which might be his most valuable role should they decide to acquire a “proven” closer, despite the fact that Bard might be the superior talent. Bard has historically been used for classic 8th inning setup, but he’s also been called upon on the 7th, given proper rest, to shut teams down for four, five, or six outs until the 9th inning.

Perhaps the front office brass enjoys the cat-and-mouse game so much that by not giving Bard a defined role, they don’t look as hungry for one of the many available late-inning arms, thus driving down the potential cost of a proven reliever? I’m not sure I buy that, but it’s a theory that’s been leveraged more than once. Wouldn’t they just name him closer if that were the case?

What’s far more likely is they want to see how the market plays out for guys like Heath Bell, Ryan Madson, Francisco Rodriguez, among many others who could fulfill 9th inning duties. The Joe Nathan signing for roughly two years, $15 million dollars should provide some interesting perspective for teams in the market for a closer in context of the Papelbon 58-dollars-plus-$50-million contract with the Phillies. Perhaps breaking the bank isn’t necessary.

Why would they want Bard in the rotation? This crowd doesn’t need another lesson on the value of starters over relievers, so let’s just jump to the obvious problem the team has in the rotation, and that’s not having much in the way of a #4 or #5 starter behind Jon Lester, Clay Bucholtz, and Josh Beckett. Cheap, effective relievers, while maybe not a dime a dozen, are at least easier to find than cheap, effective starters (or heck, in Boston’s case, even expensive effective starters).

The question of course is if Bard can make the transition from the ranks of dominant set-up guy to effective starter. Or even great starter. And while it has certainly been done before, and recently, I think there are a couple valuable questions to ponder.

First of all, I’m prepared to entirely dismiss the starter he was in the low minors. He’s a different pitcher today. But he’s different in the way that makes him terrific reliever, and that’s having swing-and-miss stuff when you see batters just once instead of three times through the order. Daniel Bard throws hard, really hard, but he survives on essentially a four seam fastball and a slider. He tosses a change in there a handful of times, but it’s not a particularly effective pitch by Bard’s standards. We just don’t know if his repertoire is such that it will get him into the sixth inning every fifth day.

There aren’t a tremendous number of true reliever-to-starter conversions. C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando are obvious successes, Phil Coke, Kyle McClellan, Danny Graves, Darren Dreifort, Kelvim Escobar, Justin Duchscherer, are all somewhat similar in that they went from primarily relieving to starting at some point, and the results are fairly mixed in that group. Derek Lowe is also an interesting case, but he always a starter in the making. There are others that have gone back and forth, but not too many who were primary relievers turned starters.

But more to the point is that Daniel Bard in his career has thrown roughly 70% four seam fastballs and about 25% sliders. In looking at starting pitchers that succeed on two pitches (defined loosely by me as not throwing a third pitch more than about 8% of the time), there are only three pitchers in 2011 who had an FIP under 4.00 who made at least 10 starts – Clayton Kershaw, Brandon Morrow, and Alexi Ogando. It’s not out of the question that Bard could be among this group as a starter, but it’s not easy to get by on two pitches without pretty spectacular stuff. And yes, Bard has spectacular stuff.

His role will pretty likely be cleared up by Spring, but obviously whether he’s in a set-up, closer, or rotation capacity has pretty wide implications for his fantasy value. In terms of predictability, I’m far more comfortable with his normal role or the closer role, and I think you should approach a move to the rotation with a healthy dose of caution. How he manages throughout the spring as he builds pitch counts is something to monitor relative to effectiveness, control, and velocity later into games.

He is without a doubt a talented and exciting pitcher to watch. But we’ll have to continue to monitor the tea leaves to figure out when we’ll be watching him.