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Years of progress erased with Daniel Bard

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  June 6, 2012 10:03 AM

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Daniel Bard is a mess now, and how he arrived there is a story that should be told in volumes.

Not so long ago, Bard was the heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon, the next great anchor at the back end of the Boston bullpen. Today he looks more like an unraveling Calvin Schiraldi.

And so now Bard is a member of the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox, right there with Mark Melancon, another man who was part of Boston's patchwork offseason reconstruction. Beyond the obvious task of cleaning up the clubhouse, the Red Sox had two essential responsibilities last winter. Boston needed innings in the starting rotation and a new structure at the back end of the bullpen, and the team's attempt at a solution ultimately boiled down to three moves.

Bard went from reliever to starter. Melancon was acquired in a deal with the Houston Astros. Andrew Bailey was picked up in a trade with the Oakland A's.

Today, one day after the Red Sox officially began the middle third of their season with an 8-6 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, those three men combined have given virtually nothing to a Boston team that still ranks 13th in the American League in pitching. Two of them are in the minor leagues. Bailey is on the disabled list and has not thrown a single pitch for the Red Sox this season. And for all the talk of the overachieving Boston bullpen, the miscast Alfredo Aceves still has as as many or more losses (three) and as many or more blown saves (three) than any reliever in the AL but Seattle righthander Brandon League.

Bard is obviously the greatest concern of those pitchers now, a one-time premier set-up man who suddenly can't find the plate with a fork and knife. Experimenting with him as a starter was one thing. How Bard and the Red Sox have approached that change is another. Both of those matters now require an array of questions in hopes of understanding why Bard is where he is now and whether the Red Sox have ruined one of the more gifted arms on their staff.

Let's start here: did the Red Sox make Bard a starter because they believed he was a good fit for the role, or did they make him a starter because it was the most cost effective option? After the disaster that was September 2011, the Red Sox entered the offseason with a luxury tax payroll approaching $190 million that was littered with dead money. Via trade or free agency, they might have had any one of a number of pitchers - Derek Lowe, Joe Saunders, Hiroki Kuroda or Edwin Jackson - on one-year deals ranging from roughly $5-$10 million. They instead made Bard a starter while acquiring Melancon and Bailey, the latter two of whom are being paid just under $4.5 million combined this season.

Lest anyone forget, in one minor league season (2007) as a starter, Bard walked 78 batters in 75 innings, including an insane 22 in 13.1 innings pitched at Class-A Lancaster of the California League (a rate of 14.8 batters per nine innings). One year later, Bard was exclusively a reliever and on his way to Boston, his strikeouts exploding and his walks shrinking as he became an elite prospect in the Boston system.

Once in the majors, Bard's performance did nothing to dispel the notion that he was best used in small samples. The more the Red Sox put him out there, the worse he got, particularly late in the year when repeating his delivery become a more laborious task. Entering this year, Bard's strikeout-to-walk totals in September were his worst of any month, which raises some obvious red flags. Was it the fatigue? The pressure? Both?

And is that why the Red Sox resisted Bard as their potential closer on multiple occasions over the last year or two, passing him over again and again.

Remember: the departure of Papelbon has been a forgone conclusion for quite some time. Nonetheless, prior to a 2011 season that was destined to be Papelbon's last year in Boston, the Red Sox signed Bobby Jenks to a two-year deal, indicating to Jenks that he would get the first chance to close when Papelbon was gone. The ill-conditioned Jenks has since proven to be a colossal bust thanks to a succession of injuries, but even after that, the Red Sox went in another direction. They acquired Bailey and moved Bard to the rotation. And then, even after Bailey was injured and the bullpen failed miserably in the earliest stages of this season, the Sox bypassed Bard again, opting to stay with Aceves.

What can we take from this other than the simple fact that the Red Sox either didn't want Bard to close or don't believe he can close? The biggest question is why.

Despite all of that, if the Red Sox truly believed Bard could be a front-end starter, putting him in the rotation is worth a shot, for no other reason than this: most everything is a worth at least a try. Often, there is no other way to get an answer. But what happened to Bard once he became a starter is a complete mystery, both the Red Sox and Bard operating in such a fashion that could not help but make you wonder whether they had any clue at all.

For whatever reason, be it at the behest of pitching coach Bob McClure or some idea that Bard has trapped between his ears, Bard cast aside his greatest asset on the mound: power. Analysts can speak all they want of Bard's arm slot and pitching mechanics, but the greatest problem rests between Bard's ears. As a starter, Bard threw like a man consumed with the concepts of pitching to contact and ground-ball outs, which would have been fine if those were his strengths. They are not. Had the Detroit Tigers and Justin Verlander taken the same approach, Verlander would have stopped trying to blow guys away and started and started throwing two-seam fastballs in hopes of being more like, say, Derek Lowe.

Does that make any sense? Really? In the ongoing major league draft, evaluators from all over baseball are plucking truckloads of potential pitchers, many of them blessed with explosive arms. The Red Sox had one in Bard. And for whatever reason, Bard took the mound as a starter as if refusing to use that gift because somebody, somewhere, believed that starting pitchers have to pitch to contact.

Does this make any sense? Lots of starters can get away with two pitches if those pitches are dominating enough. Bard's fastball and slider can both be devastating. Curt Schilling was a two-pitch pitcher and so was Bret Saberhagen. Randy Johnson was a two-pitch pitcher for long stretches. So is David Price. But for whatever reason, either the Red Sox or Bard (or both) tried to turn him into something he is not, which seems like the worst kind of coaching or decision-making.

You work with the assets you have, after all. You don't force the square peg into the round hole.

Will Bard survive all of this and come back to help the Red Sox, this year and beyond? Let's hope so. No matter what the Red Sox say about Bard's role going forward - and they claim they still regard him as a starter - the primary objective now should be getting him back to what he was in the bullpen. Anything else would be further risking his development.

Against Toronto over the weekend, Bard looked like a righthanded version of Rick Ankiel, like a pitcher with a frightening mental block. Like a golfer who leaves his game on the range, Bard said he had good stuff in the bullpen. He just couldn't reproduce it on the tee box. He started shanking balls all over the place, walking six and hitting two in 1.2 innings of an outing that made him look like a young Nuke Laloosh from the movie "Bull Durham."

Whatever it takes now, from getting Bard to wear women's lingerie to breathing through his eyelids, the Red Sox need to rebuild Bard's confidence, his head, his psyche. There is now far more to worry about than just a baseball season. Bard has regressed to the point where he is now very much akin to that young man who came out of college five years ago, he and the Red Sox having erased years of progress in the matter of just a few careless months.

Whether the Red Sox want to admit this or not, Daniel Bard's career is now at stake.

Note: An earlier version of this column contained incorrect statistics for Bard in 2007.

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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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