PHILADELPHIA — It was a noble idea the Red Sox had, taking Daniel Bard out of the bullpen and making him one of their starters. Given the lack of starter talent on the free agent market last winter, it made sense.
But that transition has left a pitcher with one of the best arms in baseball either unable or unwilling to throw his fastball for strikes. And when he does throw his fastball, it’s not the same pitch it once was.
Bard continued down a path that could lead him back to the bullpen on Friday night, giving up four runs in the first inning as the Phillies beat the Red Sox, 6-4.
“This loss is definitely on me,” Bard said.
The Red Sox are 2-5 in the games Bard has started and he has a 4.85 earned run average. Worse, he has changed as a pitcher and lost the fastball that once defined him.
Bard, who averaged a tick over 97 mph with his fastball last season, threw only four pitches better than 93 mph on Friday, none after the first inning. He walked five and struck out only three in five innings.
According to the Pitch f/x charts at Fangraphs, Bard is averaging 93.5 mph on his fastball. It was at 97.2 in 2011.
Bard expected some drop-off with his fastball once he became a starter. But he’s surprised at the marked loss of velocity.
“I didn’t think it would be quite this big,” he said. “I thought when I needed it I could reach back for 96, 97, and that hasn’t been the case obviously. It hasn’t been there.”
Bard is 26. When Alexi Ogando went from the bullpen to the Texas rotation in last season, he was 27. Ogando experienced some loss of velocity, too. But it was from 96.2 to 95.
Ogando went back to the bullpen this season when Texas added starter depth and has been devastating, allowing two earned runs in 22 innings and striking out 23 with three walks.
Bard feels he can pitch effectively at 93 or 94 if he pitches ahead in the count. But that has proven troublesome. He has 26 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings while walking 25. That percentage was certainly unexpected given that Bard had a 2.77 strikeout to walk ratio as a reliever.
His last four starts are particularly troubling. Over 23.1 innings, Bard has walked 12 and struck out only seven.
The first inning on Friday was painful to watch. Bard threw a slider to leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins on a 3-and-2 count instead of a fastball. The pitch missed inside and started what turned into a big inning for the Phillies as they scored four runs.
“It works for me a lot, but it’s probably not the smartest thing to do to the first guy of the game,” Bard said. “That’s getting out of that reliever mode still. I need to be more aggressive there.”
Bard said the pitch selection put him in a funk. With his delivery awry, he walked Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence to load the bases with one out. The next hitter, Carlos Ruiz, hopped on a high slider and ripped it for a two-run single.
Ty Wigginton had a sacrifice fly and John Mayberry Jr. an RBI double later in the inning. Pence homered off Bard in the fifth inning. All four of those run-producing swings came off Bard’s slider as the Phillies ignored his fastball.
“The walks, they’re not acceptable,” manager Bobby Valentine said. “That amount of walks, you can’t leave your team out there and you can’t keep letting those guys get on base. It’s tough to hit in the strike zone, you might as well throw it there. I know he’s trying to.”
Bard claimed he wasn’t too concerned.
“When I start to establish strike one more consistently, that’ll all come back,” he said. But there was little conviction in his voice when he said it. It was more that he was hoping that would be the case.
When the Sox switched Bard to the rotation, the idea was to maximize the value of a special arm. Why use a guy that good for 75 innings when you can get 150 or 200?
But as a No. 5 starter who walks just as many as he strikes out, Bard has less value than he did as a set-up man and is nothing special.
With Daisuke Matsuzaka getting close to a return from the disabled list, the last-place Red Sox may not be able to wait for Bard to figure it out. If they want a fringy No. 5 starter throwing a bunch of breaking and off-speed pitches, Dice-K is the man. Get Bard back to doing what he does well.
The season is nearly a quarter over and experiments can last only so long. Especially ones that aren’t working.