FORT MYERS, Fla. -- What kind of workload can Daniel Bard handle? That question looms over his potential relocation from the bullpen to the rotation.
Bard has never thrown as many as 90 innings in a professional season, peaking just short of that number in a disastrous 2007 season in which he flopped as a starter before gaining his footing out of the bullpen in the Hawaiian Winter League. In four subsequent years spent pitching solely out of the bullpen, Bard has averaged fewer than 75 innings a year.
That, in turn, raises the question of what kind of workload Bard might be able to shoulder this year. The Red Sox try to limit their pitchers to an innings increase of roughly 20 percent per year; based on that precedent, Bard would be capped at approximately 90 innings.
A more likely way for the Sox to approach Bard’s innings load would be to put him on the scale used for players who enter their farm system from college. Typically, the Sox cap starters who pitched in college around 130-140 innings in their first full pro seasons and build them up from there.
New Sox pitching coach Bob McClure, meanwhile, said that he believes strongly in limiting workload increases. He expressed some discomfort with the idea of turning Bard loose without restrictions.
“If Daniel’s in the rotation, I think that at some point you still have to keep an eye on him,” McClure said. “You’re not going to go out and let a guy like that pitch 220 innings. I think we’ve seen enough of the studies where if a guy is 30, 40, 50 innings over, that’s enough, and if they go 70, 80 innings over what they did prior to, you usually see a downside the next year, or it might be the following year.”
The Red Sox view the potential move of Bard to the rotation not as a short-term project but instead as one that could impact their organization for years to come. That being the case, the team certainly is mindful that scaling Bard’s innings carefully may be in the interests of both the pitcher and the team.
Assuming that Bard is moved to the rotation (still not a given), there are various ways the team could approach limiting his workload. He could be skipped in the rotation on occasion. Alternately, he could remain in the rotation into the second half and then, when he starts to show signs of fatigue, be moved back into the bullpen for the end of the year, with his full-season unveiling as a starter reserved for the 2013 season.
TO BARD, LESS IS NOT MORE
That, at least, would be the conservative model of building Bard as a starter. But the pitcher himself wants no part of such a blueprint.
“I haven’t thrown this many innings in my whole life, but then again, I think 75 innings out of the bullpen to me –– and the guys I’ve talked to that made the transition before –– it’s just as much wear and tear on your arm and body as 200 in the rotation,” said Bard. “I don’t want an innings limit.
“If I’m hanging in August, I’ll say something to them, but I don’t see that happening. I think my delivery is pretty fluid to where the wear and tear on my arms will be a whole lot different than it has been in past years.”
Bard can point to his own resume when making the case that he can withstand a workload that exceeds most projections. Indeed, one of the best performances of the 26-year-old’s career came when he had the biggest innings load of his life.
The memory of Bard’s career as a starter typically begins and ends with a discussion of his horrific 2007 season, in which he started at High-A Lancaster and was subsequently demoted to Single-A Greenville, combining to walk 77 and strike out just 48 in 75 innings.
Yet that is not the precedent that Bard examines when thinking about what he is attempting this year. For that, he prefers to think back to his college career.
After enrolling at the University of North Carolina, Bard got off to an attention-grabbing start to his college career, going 8-4 with a 3.88 ERA in 16 games (15 starts) for the Tar Heels while striking out 68 in 95 innings as a freshman. In 2005, however, Bard had a disappointing sophomore season, struggling with his command (4.3 walks per nine innings) en route to a 7-5 record and 4.22 ERA.
Bard logged 89 2/3 innings that year for UNC. But his season was not over. He ended up going to the Cape League, where he not only elevated his prospect status for the Wareham Gatemen, but he also offered a hint that he could dominate while assuming a substantial innings load.
Indeed, Bard led the Cape that summer with 65 innings pitched, giving him a total of 154 2/3 for the season. Interestingly, not only did he survive with such a workload -- he excelled.
Bard went 3-3 with a 1.25 ERA (third best in the league) with a league-leading 82 strikeouts and 20 walks. He was named the second-best prospect in the league, with a performance that all but cemented his status as a first-round pick in the 2006 draft.
Now, Bard believes there is plenty he can draw on from that experience as he prepares to attempt his conversion to the rotation.
“I felt great at the end of it, and I wasn’t working out at all that summer,” Bard said of a year in which he ended up logging more than 150 innings. “So, I think if I’m working out, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Typically, pitchers find that their stuff flattens out with an increased innings load. Bard said that the exact opposite happened for him in Wareham. While most Cape teams had their starters working on six or seven days of rest, Bard was part of a five-man rotation for the Gateman.
There was no structured between-starts workout program in the college prospect league. The right-hander recalls using the weight room no more than “a handful of times.”
Instead, Bard created his own routine, running poles, doing push-ups and doing squats and lunges to stay active. Despite the unstructured nature of the program, he didn’t fatigue. To the contrary, his stuff was better than ever.
“On the Cape, that was the best I’d ever pitched to that point, just as far as throwing strikes, I was spinning a breaking ball pretty good for the first time,” said Bard. “I led the league in strikeouts. I had never gotten strikeouts before because all I’d thrown before was the heater. I got groundballs with it, but I was throwing all fastballs and guys were going to put it in play. There, I was able to throw a breaking ball and strike guys out.”
THERE ARE OTHER PRECEDENTS … AND NEEDS
Derek Lowe was perennially good for a monster workload after the Red Sox moved him from a 90-innings a year reliever to a 200-frames-per-season starter. The Rangers turned C.J. Wilson loose after 2009 -- a year in which he logged 74 innings of relief -- and let him toss 204 innings in 2010 and 223 more last season. Texas likewise bumped up the workload of Alexi Ogando by roughly 100 innings from 2010 to 2011 when shifting him from the bullpen to starting duty.
And while the Sox would prefer to manage a workload increase incrementally, they won’t necessarily remain constrained by a blueprint. The team’s training staff will take stock of the pitcher’s strength at regular intervals; if he shows no signs of fatigue, if he shows tremendous pitch efficiency and he is successful as a starter, then the Sox may let his performance dictate his work.
After all, after Jon Lester pitched approximately 160 innings in 2007, the Sox turned him loose to log more than 230 innings the following season. At one point that year, a member of the team’s brain trust was asked why the team had been comfortable with such a significant workload boost.
“Pennant race,” the official shrugged.
Lester, of course, had also tested well that year (indeed, as he got further away from his diagnosis with cancer, he actually showed improved strength as the season wore on -- a nearly unheard-of development). Even so, the claim offered a reminder that the theory of restricting Bard’s innings could prove far easier than the practice of doing so.
If Bard is intent on shedding innings limits, then he can make a powerful case by staying healthy, staying strong, staying committed to his routine and staying…dominant. It is something that Bard did in the season when he shouldered the biggest workload of his pitching career, and it is something that he is intent on doing once again.