Commentary

Preaching patience with Daniel Bard

Sox need him to figure out how to succeed as starter, even if it means demotion

Updated: June 4, 2012, 4:04 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Let's take the hysteria out of the Daniel Bard conversation, if we can.

First, let's establish what Bard now has in common with such notable starters as John Smoltz, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Ryan Dempster, Kerry Wood, Jim Abbott, Kenny Rogers, Mike Scott, Don Larsen and Bob Feller.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Bard
Aaron Vincent Elkaim/AP PhotoDaniel Bard's early exit Sunday was concerning, to be sure, but is not reason to abandon this experiment.

That's right. They all had games in which they walked six or more batters in two innings or less. Bard on Sunday was just the latest to do something that has been done 103 times in the past 60 years. He set himself apart by also plunking two hitters, a combo that had not been done since at least 1918, according to Baseball-Reference.com, but that is more a statistical oddity than testament to unprecedented wildness.

And the reason it hasn't happened more often is that a manager's patience is usually exhausted before a pitcher's faulty aim is so fully exposed.

Bard's disastrous start Sunday also is no reason to condemn the Red Sox for embarking on this experiment to convert a gifted reliever into a starting pitcher. Bard has made 10 starts for the Sox this season. The team's record in those games is 4-6, an acceptable split for a No. 5 starter for most contending teams.

You say Bard's 36 walks in 54 1/3 innings this season are proof positive of his unsuitability as a starter? Then what do you say about Ubaldo Jimenez, Kyle Drabek, Edinson Volquez, Ricky Romero, Yu Darvish and Justin Masterson, all of whom have walked more batters than Bard this season? Or Tim Lincecum, the two-time NL Cy Young Award winner, who has two fewer walks than Bard but an ERA that is more than a half-point higher (5.82 to 5.30 as a starter)?

The Toronto Blue Jays embarked on a similar experiment with another hard-throwing right-hander, Brandon Morrow, who had been mostly a reliever with his previous team, the Seattle Mariners, before the Jays elected to make Morrow a full-time starter in 2010.

Through his first 10 starts that season, Morrow was having an even worse time of it than Bard. He was giving up more hits than innings pitched, he'd walked 32 in 50 innings and his ERA was a hideous 6.66. The Jays, in part because they didn't have many other options, stayed the course with Morrow. He rewarded their faith by allowing a total of five runs over his next five starts, did not walk more than three in any of those starts and finished the season by going 10-6 with a 3.36 ERA the rest of the way. He is now an indispensable member of the Jays' rotation.

There is no guarantee, of course, that Bard's career arc will parallel Morrow's. What it does suggest, however, is that the Red Sox could do worse than exercising patience before deciding to pull the plug on Bard as a starter. It may well turn out, as a number of talent evaluators have insisted since the start of spring training, that the Red Sox were mistaken in rolling the dice with a man who had been such a valuable asset out of the 'pen, that his secondary pitches just weren't good enough to sustain him three or four times through an order, that his high-octane fastball and sweeping slider were best suited for short bursts out of the 'pen.

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At the moment, Bard has raised questions about his effectiveness in either role. He conceded Sunday that something has been lost in translation during his conversion, most evident in his inability to summon the 98 mph fastball that had made him so unhittable in his previous incarnation. His biggest flaw as a starter has been his inability to repeat his delivery, which has led to his command issues.

He is at a loss to explain why he has come out of his delivery so frequently.

"There's no reason the way I threw the ball out of the bullpen shouldn't translate to starting," he said after Sunday's start. "I know it's not exactly the same. We've tried to change too many things. We just need to get back to being simple."

So what should the Red Sox do? They could run him out again Saturday, his next scheduled start, against the Washington Nationals, in hopes that the work he does between starts with pitching coach Bob McClure gets him back on track. He thought he was making progress in his previous start, when he bumped up his velocity and walked just two against the Tigers.

The risk in doing that, of course, is that when you feel as out of sorts as Bard does, more failure might compound his confusion and further deflate his confidence.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is scheduled to make a rehab start Tuesday, and has been effective in his last two starts for Pawtucket. The Sox could scratch Matsuzaka from that start, or have him pitch a couple of innings as a tuneup, and bring him back to face the Nationals on Saturday. What becomes of Bard in that scenario?

The easiest thing would be to return him to the bullpen, where if he regained his previous form it would dramatically strengthen a unit that has performed superbly for the last month. But Matsuzaka is hardly a sure thing, especially coming off Tommy John surgery, and the Sox have limited starting depth behind him. Aaron Cook's freak spike wound robbed the Sox of another option, and you have to figure Cook is at least a month away, given how much time he has missed.

As difficult as it might be to swallow, Bard -- and the Red Sox -- would be best served by sending him to Pawtucket, keep him starting, and let him find himself in an environment much more conducive to doing so than staying here. It worked for Clay Buchholz when his development stagnated, and it could work for Bard. Maybe it takes just a couple of starts. Maybe it takes a couple of months. But until Ben Cherington can find another starter before the trading deadline, the Sox need Bard to succeed in his current role.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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