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Daniel Bard is playing out of position

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  May 9, 2012 10:48 AM

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In retrospect, on a night like this, the analysis is rather elementary. Daniel Bard needed someone like Daniel Bard behind him in the bullpen.

Instead, Bard lit the fuse on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium, where reliever Matt Albers promptly entered with the gasoline in a 6-4 Red Sox defeat to the Kansas City Royals. Just like that, another potential Red Sox victory went poof. And once again, we cannot help but wonder whether Bard is truly suited to start, whether the Red Sox are doing both him and themselves a disservice by keeping him in the starting rotation during a season that looks more like a fire drill with each passing day.

Big picture issues aside - and there are still plenty - let's focus on Bard, now 2-4 with a 4.83 ERA in six starts, most of them against inferior teams and lineups. (Toronto, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Chicago, Oakland, Kansas City.) He is averaging 5.1 innings per start. He isn't winning. Thus far, Bard has looked like a pitcher who can make his way through a lineup one or two times, the classic five-inning pitcher who has neither the repertoire nor the savvy to be much more.

Can that change? Sure. But there is relatively little in Bard's history to suggest that he will somehow morph into the next Justin Verlander.

Forget the end of Tuesday night's game, which featured a pair of Bard walks to start the eighth inning before Albers entered and allowed a game-breaking three-run homer. This about Bard's entire body of work, both on the mound at Kauffman Stadium and through the first five weeks of the 2012 season. For all of the numbers that dot Bard's outings thus far, the most worrisome is this one: he has just 21 strikeouts in 31.2 innings. This from a man with a fastball that has touched 100 mph in the major leagues, not to mention a slider that should come with reflective, yellow caution signs. (Warning: sharp curve ahead.)

You know why Bard isn't striking anybody out? Because he's trying to pitch like something he is not. Bard seems so concerned with ground balls (19 last night) that he is ignoring his strengths. In the second inning last night, after the Red Sox staked him to a 2-0 lead, Bard allowed a leadoff single to Eric Hosmer. He then seemed so concerned with getting a double play, with negotiating his way out of the mess, that he walked the nearly unwalkable Jeff Francouer and committed a pair of balks during a three-run Royals rally that was positively mind-numbing.

During the succession, NESN analyst Dennis Eckersley noted that Bard seemed unusually preoccupied with the base runners, something that has been true for the large majority (if not all) of this season. So far against Bard this year, with the bases empty, opponents are batting .206 with a .607 OPS. With men on, the numbers balloon to .322 and .819. Under normal circumstances, it would be reasonable to attribute those numbers to some mechanical issue tied to pitching out of the stretch, but Bard has been a career reliever who has worked exclusively out of the stretch position throughout his major league career.

In fact, Terry Francona often relied on Bard with men on base, summoning Bard into games because he knew the reliever could get him what the team wanted and needed.

A strikeout.

So what is Bard doing now in those situations? He's trying to get a double play instead of rearing back and blowing someone away. He's committing balks. His wheels are spinning so furiously that Bard cannot simply do what comes naturally, which is to effortlessly blow the ball by batters who are completely overmatched.

But then, maybe this is why the Red Sox went out and acquired Bobby Jenks as Jonathan Papelbon's heir apparent between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, knowing that asking Bard to close might simply invite his head to get in the way.

Before anyone gets too excited about the ground balls Bard recorded, let's pump the brakes. Even with last night's lopsided ratio, Bard still has recorded nearly as many outs via the air (50) as the ground (50). We should also remember that the Royals, well, stink. Kansas City ranks 13th in the AL in home runs while hitting into more double plays than all but two teams, which means Royals batters couldn't get the ball into the air if their lives depended on it. Granted, the Royals also have struck out fewer times than any team in the league, but that is because Kansas City is largely a collection of slap hitters who can do little or no damage.

As for the issues of Bard's stamina and durability, those are very much in question, too. On Bard's third trip through the order this season - right around the fifth inning - opponents are batting .314 with an .899 OPS against him. On the fourth trip through, opponents have four walks and one hit in eight plate appearances, an on-base percentage of .625. After Bard's 75th pitch, opponents are 10 for 28, a .357 average, with six walks in 36 plate appearances.

The easy explanation for this is that Bard has been conditioned as a short reliever during his major league career, but that is far too simplistic. Bard had all winter to prepare for his role as a starter, just as Derek Lowe did between the 2001 and 2002 seasons. Bard spent the entire spring as a starter. But while Lowe took to starting immediately and won 21 games in 2002 - admittedly, that is a high bar - Bard is still sputtering along without an apparent clue of what he wants to be, which is affecting his ability to get key outs at key times.

Here's the real question worth asking with Bard: what if, by nature, he is a sprinter and not a distance runner? Someone like Lowe was sinkerballer who had started games in the minor leagues, pitched middle relief, been a set-up man, swingman and closer. Bard has been a short reliever since his earliest days in the minors, when the Red Sox decided that the combination of his stuff, delivery and makeup made him more suited for a shorter role. Now, years later and out of financial necessity, the Sox have decided to switch Bard back, even though there was little during his career as a short reliever to suggest he could easily make the transition.

Does Bard have a two-seamer now that he lacked in the minors? Not really. Is he a pitcher more than a thrower? No. In fact, during his time as a reliever under Francona, Bard seemed to wilt late in the season, when his walk totals shoot up and his effectiveness wanes. In effect, that is what happened last night in Kansas City, when Bard walked the first two batters in the eighth inning of a 4-3 game. And it is what happened against Tampa Bay last month, when he walked seven, including Evan Longoria with the bases loaded in a 1-0 Red Sox defeat.

Right now, Daniel Bard is doing what he has always done, which is why this experiment should surprise nobody.

Meanwhile, as we all know, the Red Sox are 12-17 as we approach the middle of May, a particularly worrisome development given that they are now 1-6 in their last seven games - and against Oakland, Baltimore and Kansas City. So far this season, Sox relievers have lost more games than those of any team but the Royals, Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels. Going back to September 1 of last year, Bard has now amassed eight losses, more than any pitcher in baseball but Ervin Santana (1-9), including four as a reliever and four as a starter.

Six of one, half dozen of the other?

Perhaps.

But something still suggests that this experiment is going far more wrong than right.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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