BALTIMORE – No one expected the transition to be seamless, but at the same time, no one expected it to be this extreme.
After all, the whole idea behind having Daniel Bard move from the bullpen to the rotation was that he could bring with him the ability to get swings and misses mixed with enough groundballs to keep his pitch counts down. He’d managed to be so dominant, and with such an easy, fluid delivery as a reliever in the big leagues, that the appeal of moving him to the rotation was obvious.
But Bard hasn’t been the same pitcher as a starter that he was as a reliever. His pitch mix has become radically different, as has the reaction of opposing pitchers to it, a trend that continued even on a day when he earned the victory in the Red Sox’ 6-5 win over the Orioles. And his tenure in the rotation still seems very much like an experiment rather than anything that offers the Sox clear direction about whether it is a job for which he is ideally suited.
“I’m still learning about Daniel,” Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine conceded before Wednesday’s outing.
He’s not alone, and certainly, there were few conclusions to be drawn from the outing that followed. Bard tossed 5 1/3 innings and allowed just two runs on five hits while getting a lot of weak contact (aside from a solo homer by Nick Johnson, just the third that Bard has allowed this year).
But he also struck out just two batters and walked four, continuing an alarming trend in which he’s lost the ability to strike batters out. Bard’s fastball, electric in relief, has become pedestrian. For the most part, he’s been working at 91-93 mph (he did touch 94 on occasion on Wednesday), and without his extra velocity, he hasn’t been able to get batters to chase or swing through the offering. That has led to deep counts, an inability to put away opponents and, ultimately, walks.
His performance hasn’t been bad. But it hasn’t offered much clarity about what he is, either, or whether he’s moving in the right direction.
“It's really weird, man. They're not hitting the ball hard consistently off me. It's been like one home run the last two games, a solo homer,” said Bard. “[It’s] just a struggle with getting ahead in the count.
“My head's in a good place. I'm feeling confident out there, but I'm having trouble repeating the delivery at the same time. It's a little bit of the opposite of what I had the few outings before this, where the delivery was locked in, but I wasn't trusting the ball to the middle of the plate, and that's where the walks came from. I feel like I'm in a good place. It's just a matter of finding that delivery I can repeat consistently.”
Bard referenced on a couple of occasions the fact that his season has gone through distinct stretches, and his performance eight starts into his tenure in the Red Sox rotation suggests as much. In his first three starts, Bard punched out 19 batters against nine walks (seven of which came in one game) over 18 2/3 innings, forging a 3.86 ERA. He was showing precisely what the Sox had been hoping to see.
Since then, however, Bard has had ordinary results while laboring to achieve them. He is 2-3 with a 5.34 ERA. He’s struck out just nine batters while walking 19 over 28 2/3 innings.
The performance has been decidedly mediocre. Bard largely has kept the Sox in games -- he hasn’t given up more than five runs in any outing, and he’s pitched at least five innings in all eight of his starts this year. The contact against him has typically been soft -- line drives and groundballs that find holes -- with only the occasional homer thrown into the mix (he’s permitted just three so far this year).
But there is a surprising inability to get strikeouts, a lot of walks and tons of baserunners. Among 121 qualifying starters, Bard ranks 112th with a 1.56 WHIP -- almost twice the mark of major league leader Justin Verlander, who has a 0.80 WHIP, and a colossal increase from the 0.98 WHIP he had as a reliever in 2010-11.
His inability to repeat his delivery and throw strikes became sufficiently extreme that, when Bard returned to the mound for the fifth inning, he was pitching exclusively out of the stretch, even with the bases empty. It was something that Valentine and pitching coach Bob McClure suggested, and to which Bard was open.
“I was out of the stretch so much in the first three or four innings, there was really no reason to start the innings out of the windup, because I was obviously finding something at the end of those innings,” said Bard, who had both of his strikeouts after committing to the stretch. “I said you know what, I'll try anything at this point. I was able to repeat it a little bit better.”
Bard is still searching for the right formula to achieve success as a starter. Right now, his task feels foreign.
“I don’t feel like myself out there pitching right now,” he acknowledged. “My first few starts of the year, I had really good command of all three pitches. I think the results were not where I wanted them to be. They weren’t matching up, where I felt good and the results weren’t great.
“So I tried to be better, when I don’t really need to be. When you’re trying to get better and you’re already throwing the ball well, maybe they're scrapping together some runs against you, usually that makes things worse. That’s kind of what happened at this point. Mentally, I feel good, I’m throwing pitches with conviction, physically my mechanics are just a little out of whack and not in sync.”
Yet Bard could step back from some of the pitch-to-pitch challenges that he faced and take stock of the bigger picture. He pitched into the sixth inning. He limited the damage to two runs. He put his team and himself in position for a win.
He is convinced that he will be better, and that the strikeouts will come while the walks go down. He understands the value of putting away opposing hitters in two-strike counts, something he did so expertly while punching out a batter an inning in his relief career.
“That’s what made me good out of the bullpen the last few years. You eliminate them putting the ball in play, that’s the highest percentage for success,” said Bard. “It’ll come. Keep working at it.”
Until that happens, as his education and remaking as a starter continues, he will take games like Wednesday’s. After all, it is a bottom-line sort of role in which he finds himself.
As catcher Kelly Shoppach noted, “Hell, go out there and throw strikes; I don’t care how you do it or what it looks like. He was scuffling a little out there and he kept us in the game.”
Bard echoed that sentiment. He’s aware of the fact that there are improvements that must be made as he continues his transition to the rotation. Yet for now, even as an outing such as Wednesday’s left him once again puzzled, Bard was willing to view it, based on the outcome, as a position step.
“I don’t care [about strikeouts and walks] right now. I know that, when I get right and I get my mechanics where I’m supposed to be and I’m getting ahead of guys and trusting those pitches with two strikes, the strikeouts are going to come,” said Bard. “It’s a little frustrating, to not get it when you need it…
“[But] the mechanics, we’ll work that stuff out between starts. To be able to get the win today is huge.”