The legend of Daniel Bard was born three years ago at this time. A first-round pick in the 2006 draft, Bard made his professional debut in the Florida Instructional League. And there, the young pitcher made heads turn.
Word circulated quickly. Bard was firing his fastball at — and in excess of — 100 miles per hour. Everyone who witnessed him throw was dazzled by the apparent effortlessness of his ability to generate incredible velocity.
Though he threw no more than a couple innings that fall, the right-hander’s reputation had been created. A hype machine went into motion that made it appear that Bard was on the fast track to the majors.
The pitcher himself got caught up in the notion, something that became easy to do since college teammate Andrew Miller, who was drafted by the Tigers in the first round of the ’06 draft, made his big-league debut that year.
“I had pitched side-by-side with [Miller] the past three years and thought, ‘If he can do it, I can do it this year,’ ” Bard admitted. “I kind of went in my first full season probably looking a little too much toward the goal of arriving in the big leagues. I was like, ‘OK, the minor leagues is just a stepping stone.’ I was kind of looking past putting in the work, as far as the pitching goes and the learning. It hurt me.”
Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine more dramatic career swings than what Bard has experienced over the last three years. Already, he has gone from first-round talent to can’t-miss prospect to no-chance washout back to prospect and finally, now, to a position where the Red Sox will not shy from him in the playoffs.
What he might deliver in the postseason is a complete unknown. But the mere fact the flamethrower will enter into the Red Sox’ late-inning equation during the playoffs qualifies as an almost miraculous development.
A 'MISERABLE' DEBUT
Humility came quickly.
In retrospect, Bard admits that he was too ambitious. But at the time, it seemed so easy for him to use college teammate Miller’s career as a roadmap.
“People [said] right away, in spring training in ’07, before the bad season, they [told] me, ‘Hey, your college teammate is in the big leagues.’ I said, ‘That’s his journey, this is mine,’” said Bard. “In the back of my head, I was like, ‘I want to be there this year.’ That became my focus.”
And so, each outing became a chance not just to attack opposing hitters, but also to prove that he should push forward to the next level, and the next, and the next. Bard was assigned out of spring training to High-A Lancaster, but there were early warning signs.
He recalls his velocity dropping into the low-90s, in part due to a miscommunication about his mechanics. The team had talked with Bard about getting more on top of his breaking ball, primarily through the position of his fingers on the ball. The right-hander took that to mean delivery the ball in more over-the-top fashion, something that he tried to achieve according by tilting his body and pulling his body towards first base.
His command immediately began to falter. He felt pain in his elbow. He tried to pitch through it, refusing to tell the team’s training staff, and his velocity dropped. He made just five horrific starts, allowing 23 runs (15 earned) while walking 22 (compared to just nine strikeouts) and giving up 21 hits in 13.1 innings.
“I was miserable. I was on the mound trying to find an arm slot and a way to throw my pitches that wouldn’t hurt my elbow,” he said. “I thought maybe if I started the season I could pitch through it and it would go away. That wasn’t the case.”
He was shut down for three weeks, and sent from Lancaster to the safe haven of extended spring training in Fort Myers. When he was ready to go out on his next assignment, the Sox demoted him to Low-A Greenville of the South Atlantic League, a level that first-round college pitchers typically skip.
Bard didn’t mind the reassignment, since it meant that he would be close to his North Carolina-based family. The Sox were hopeful that Bard could build confidence by dominating younger hitters.
Instead, his poor results continued, and confusion reigned as Bard endured a 6.42 ERA while walking 56 and striking out 38 in 61.2 innings.
“He talked about it all the time, how upset and frustrated he was that they wanted to change his arm angle like that,” said outfielder Josh Reddick, Bard’s teammate in Greenville. “You’d ask him why he didn’t just go back and do that, and he’d say, it was too late.”
“It was the first time I had ever struggled, especially to that extent. You start to lose trust in your stuff,” Bard said. “I think I battled with that. That’s where the walks came from. I was just pitching away from contact. I’d go 1-0, and say they’d be sitting fastball, so I’d try to make the perfect pitch. I’d cut it short. I was just aiming balls.”
On the mound, the frustrations were constant. Even when Bard pitched well, he felt as if the Sox were quick to pull him after five or six good innings even when he had a low pitch count in an effort to protect him and ensure that he didn’t experience a catastrophic inning later in the game.
After one outing — Bard recalled that it was a July 4 game — the pitcher’s frustration after being lifted became too much to internalize. He walked off the field, continued into the clubhouse bathroom and punched a vent on the ceiling. The old pipe dented, and a plume of dust burst onto the field.
Those at the park wondered about the apparent eruption that was taking place. Bard recalls the moment with some amusement — except for the $170 he was fined for punishing the piece of equipment — but admits that the weight of the season had become immense.
“They’d pat you on the back, and say, ‘OK, good job,’ thinking it would boost my confidence,” Bard said. “I was like, ‘You know what will boost my confidence? Throwing eight shutout innings in 80 pitches.’ Pull me then. I was frustrated by that — the over-protection. Looking back, it probably was the best thing.
“It’s very hard (to see that at the time) because of the heat of competition. You think those games mean something. In retrospect, it was a minor-league A-ball game. It means nothing.”
By the middle of the year, Bard understood that a call-up to the majors by the end of wasn’t about to happen. Indeed, his performance was sufficiently poor that he recognized that he’d be in Greenville for the rest of 2007.
It was a year of significant failure, in which his command was staggeringly poor. Bard would bounce the ball in front of the plate on one pitch and sail it to the backstop on the next. It wasn’t that he was just missing. His pitches were often in a different zip code than home plate.
Gabe Kapler was the manager for Greenville, less than a year removed from his career as a player. He readily admits that he didn’t know what to make of the right-hander with incredible natural ability but abysmal performance.
“As far as evaluating the talent, I didn’t know,” said Kapler, now with the Rays. “He flashed brilliant stuff but he was having trouble throwing strikes. I didn’t have enough experience — I still don’t have enough experience — to know what that means.”
Kapler was not alone. Some members of the Sox front office undertook the effort to seek reassurance, mining statistical data to search for players who had recovered from such extreme command difficulties. There were some examples of players who had recovered from such depths, but many more who did not.
Outside of the organization, many talent evaluators drew the conclusion that Bard was a lost cause. Contributing to that conclusion was the notion, shared by multiple scouts, that Bard was soft, that he lacked the fire of a Pedroia or Papelbon, players who were desperate to maximize their abilities.
Bard, who talked often with former big-league pitcher and Sox psychologist Bob Tewksbury, had a different revelation. Though his poor performances grated on him at the ballpark, he learned to separate his personal and professional lives.
“For me, the biggest thing that year did for me was it really reinforced to me that baseball is part of my life. It’s not my life,” said Bard. “I tried not to be that guy that thinks everything is not going well off the field, in a bad mood all the time, not a good teammate. It wasn’t hard, that was easy for me. I didn’t have to try to be happy all the time. I was still fine. It was like, ‘Baseball sucks right now. It’s not going the way I want it to.’ It gave me some perspective.”
That perspective, in turn, allowed Bard to remain open to analyzing his struggles rather than being consumed by them.
THE ALOHA MOMENT FOR BARD'S CAREER
The Sox had seen the mechanical alterations made by Bard, and the diminished velocity and command. They were aware that at some point, they would need to revisit his delivery. But the team wanted to avoid throwing too much information at the young pitcher, fearing that he could be overwhelmed if he obsessed over his mechanics and his poor results.
The team decided to get through the ’07 regular season. In retrospect, some team officials have questioned whether they pursued the right course, or whether they should have been more aggressive to correct the pitcher’s mechanics earlier. Certainly, that thought crossed Bard’s mind when he was finally confronted, following the regular season, with video of himself on the mound.
The Sox sent Bard to the Hawaiian Winter Baseball League to pitch in relief. There, he worked with Mike Cather, the team’s Double-A pitching instructor.
Cather’s only prior exposure to Bard was in the previous year’s Instructional League. He remembered a pitcher whose arm permitted him to do some special things on the mound. That said, he was aware of the pitcher’s horrific season and was curious to see whether he’d find a willing pupil or a more challenging subject.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Cather said. “He was definitely frustrated, but he was eager. A lot of times you have somebody who’s whipped, who has their tail between their legs who would rather ignore everything that’s happened. If you ignore experience, you’re going to have a tough time regenerating that experience without going through it again.”
Bard immediately made clear that he was open to any input that Cather might offer. The two started by sitting down to look at video of Bard from the 2007 season. The undertaking was eye-opening for both.
“[Cather] was like, ‘You just don’t look comfortable. I watched you a year ago in instructional league. It wasn’t perfect, but you were just slinging it up there from 98-100. Now you’re doing this robotic, over-the-top pulling thing. You’re not following through. Your body is straight up the whole time. It just doesn’t look comfortable,’” Bard recalled.
“I hadn’t watched video of myself. All year, they wouldn’t let me watch video. They thought it was going to screw me up worse. He pulled up a video he had on his computer, and I was like, ‘Dude, that’s not me.’ I’d seen a lot of video of myself while I was in college. That was weird. I didn’t realize what my delivery had turned into.
“I kind of thought it was weird that nobody showed it to me during the year. They were like, ‘Your delivery is fine. It’s all in your head. It’s all mental.’ I looked at this and I was like, ‘It’s not mental. If you saw me throw a year ago, that’s not what I looked like.’”
For Cather, the reasons for the pitcher’s struggle were also entirely apparent.
“The guy is 6-5, 6-6. He’s probably throwing the ball 52, 53 feet,” Cather said. “He was cutting himself off and making himself a 5-foot-8 pitcher. Keeping his head on line was probably the biggest key for him. The longer he stayed on line, the better he stayed behind the ball.”
The two tried to forge a course to rediscover the pitcher’s natural throwing motion. Cather would long-toss with Bard, forcing the pitcher to employ the simplest mechanics while winging the ball across immense distances.
Cather recalled “three-hopping” the ball back to Bard as the pitcher would nudge to ever greater distances, typically peaking around 250 feet. The mechanics came naturally. Bard would square his shoulders rather than pulling down, and the ball would take off as if guided by a zipwire.
Bard recognized the value of the undertaking. Heartened by the results, he did not rely entirely on Cather. He would head out to the field before nearly all of his Honolulu Sharks teammates, and keep throwing while rediscovering the throwing motion that made him successful in college. The long-toss exercises resulted in a different pitcher on the mound.
“I think he really kind of found himself,” Cather said. “He worked it into his delivery, worked his delivery into the game, and started having some success. He still had some issues of throwing some pitches inconsistently, but the conversations became much more open.”
Pitching out of the bullpen, Bard began to deliver zeros and his velocity ticked up. He was back in the mid-90s. He was still walking about a batter an inning, but when he missed the strike zone, he did so in the same place, typically missing off the plate away to left-handed hitters, rather than coming up 10 feet short of the plate or uncorking a pitch that went 10 feet over the heads of batters.
A trust between the two had been created. Cather and Bard both were convinced that the pitcher was on the way to finding the mechanics that could once again make him successful. Suddenly, the idea that he had disappeared from the prospect landscape was forgotten.
And so, Cather encouraged Bard not just to remain satisfied with what he was doing, but to test the limits of what he could do.
“I had a discussion about the freedom of not caring. Everything is so important in this game that we sometimes let it take control over us. We can’t,” said Cather. “I wanted him to test the red line. I knew he backed off, and was 93-95, which is funny that he was 93-95 after backing off. He was aiming the ball.
The progress had gone so well in Hawaii that it was time to challenge him. Pick your batter, two outs, nobody on, and just blow somebody up. Just go. And if you walk him, OK, you can always go back and make an adjustment.”
Bard went into a game and unleashed the ball as he hadn’t done all year. Pushed to throw with his full velocity, his arm found its natural release point in a lower arm slot.
He fired bullets, reaching 95, 96, 97 mph. He overwhelmed his opponents in that inning.
“I pounded the zone, had a 1-2-3 inning, and I think I struck out one or two,” Bard remembered. “[Cather] was like, ‘How did that feel?’ I just smiled. I found it.”
From there, Cather kept pushing Bard in a fashion reminiscent of the dynamic between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel Larusso.
The pitching coach encouraged the protégée to get mean on the mound, to have an alter-ego when he pitched. For a period, Bard grew a handlebar mustache (“incredibly sick,” Cather chuckled admiringly).
Cather told Bard to pitch inside, to be unafraid of hitting an opponent. He told Bard that a player can be nice off the field but a beast on it, invoking pitcher Orel Hershiser and Mike Singletary to prove his point.
If Bard saw a hitter cheating to the outside corner, he started busting heaters on the inside edge. Eventually, he hit a batter with a fastball. Neither Bard nor Cather was about to apologize for having done so.
“There was some ruckus with some players thinking he did this on purpose,” said Cather. “I said, ‘Are you taking some heat for this?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Did anyone throw a punch?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Why do you think that is? It’s because you throw 100.’ He started to laugh.
“I said, ‘Daniel, you don’t know what you just did. You went from being Daniel Bard, the guy who can’t throw strikes. You’re Daniel Bard, who’s not afraid to take away the inner half, and you’re a [jerk]. Now that’s circulating. Congratulations, you just got a title.' ”
BACK ON TRACK
Bard went into the offseason having shed the memory of his putrid regular season. By the time he arrived in spring training in 2008, he was once again confident.
He was told that he would pitch in relief, and start the 2008 season back at Single-A Greenville. Bard accepted the assignment without hesitation, hoping to use the level to dominate while on the mound and, as one of the oldest players on the Greenville roster, to help other players with their own development when off of it.
The assignment proved fortuitous, since Bard met his fiancée, Adair, during a month in which he overpowered Sally League hitters. He forged a 0.64 ERA while striking out 43 and walking four in 28 innings. He was a force, earning a quick call-up to Portland.
Reunited there with Cather, Bard at first showed some tentativeness. He delivered get-me-over fastballs that bottom-of-the-order hitters would whack. But instead of shriveling, he started employing early-count breaking balls, and soon began to replicate his dominance at Double A.
Eventually, he emerged as the Portland closer, a role in which he was firing 100 mph fastballs and showed a demeanor of a pitcher who knew he could dominate. Cather and Sea Dogs manager Arnie Beyeler would take time to appreciate what they saw whenever Bard took to the mound
“When you go to a baseball game in the major leagues and pay big money, that’s what you see. That’s what it looks like,’” Cather said. “That was one of my highlights that year, watching him come in and know that no one can touch him. It’s a good place to be.”
Bard remained in that place this season. His spring training was eye opening, as he dominated major league hitters in front of Red Sox manager Terry Francona and pitching coach John Farrell. In so doing, he gave clear evidence that he would not remain in the minors for long.
And so, in one sense, it came as little surprise when he was called up to the majors about five weeks into the season. Yet at another level, his emergence from a potential flameout to a trusted member of the bullpen and a go-to option in the late innings in the majors this year remains shocking.
He went through spells of utter dominance, most notably a stretch from late June through the beginning of August when he threw 14 scoreless innings while striking out 23 and not walking a single batter. For those who had seen his most pronounced struggles, it was hard to comprehend the pitcher’s rapid arrival.
“At the time [in 2007], it looked like it was going to be a slower development process,” Kapler said. “And then, bang, he’s a dominant set-up man in the American League East in, from my perspective, a really short period of time.”
It remains to be seen what role Bard might serve this postseason, or how he will respond to the atmosphere and competition. Nonetheless, power pitching is typically viewed as one of the foremost assets a team can have in October, and few pitchers show the ability to generate Bard's kind of power, as evidenced by his 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings this year.
As such, one year after he watched close friend Justin Masterson emerge as one of Boston’s most trusted late-inning options in the 2008 playoffs, he is in the extraordinary position of potentially doing the same. The playoffs represent a new testing ground for the pitcher, but just two years removed from having engaged in a far more daunting challenge of salvaging his career, Bard is prepared to embrace his October opportunity.
“I’m excited,” Bard said. “At the beginning of the year, I was excited just to come up and have a chance just to help the team. To be able to play kind of a big role in some late innings has been a lot of fun and something special. To be able to do that in the playoffs is going to be even more special.”