The Bard Conundrum

It’s generally understood in the Sabermetric community that if you have a tremendously talented pitcher with a wide array of pitches to choose from, that his talents are best served in the starting rotation rather than the bullpen. It makes sense when you realize that 200 or more decent innings from a pitcher are more valuable to a team than 60 innings—even if those 60 innings are far more dominant.

This is the sort of logic regularly ignored by teams such as the Cincinnati Reds who continue to use the unconsciously awesome Aroldis Chapman in a late-inning role rather than in the rotation.

This logic, however, undoubtedly served as the backbone for the Boston Red Sox decision to use Daniel Bard in the rotation this season. You see, Bard had proven over the last three seasons that he is a tremendously talented reliever. He used his high-90s fastball and almost equally velocitious* sinker in concert with an excellent slider and a sparingly-used, but effective changeup to strike out more than a batter per inning and induce impressive groundball rates.

Although his splits indicated that he was less effective against lefties, he still held them to a .273 wOBA in 2011, contributing to the logic that he would be more valuable to the Red Sox as a starter.

Unfortunately for Boston, things haven’t exactly worked out as planned with Bard. Coming into his start today against the Blue Jays, Bard had a 5.29 xFIP in his first 10 appearances (nine of them starts), and is allowing double the amount of walks while getting half the amount of strike outs he garnered while working as a reliever. His 1.03 K/BB ratio was ahead of just Cleveland’s Ubaldo Jimenez among qualified big-league starters.

Today, the wheels fell off further as Bard either walked (6) or hit (2) eight of the 13 batters he faced in just an inning and two-thirds. He has now walked more batters (37) than he has struck out (34) this season.

Understandably, Bard’s velocity is down significantly as a starter and the heavier reliance on his changeup has clearly not helped his cause. It may be time to pronounce the experiment dead before it serves to wreck him as both a starter and a reliever.

The epicness with which Bard has failed as a starter should not necessarily have come as a huge surprise to the Red Sox or their fan base. After all, he was atrocious as a starter the last time he was used in the role. Back in 2007, Bard walked more than a batter per inning in 22 starts between low-A and high-A, and had well-below-average strikeout rates. The second the team decided to use him as a reliever, he immediately improved and became the pitcher we all knew heading into this year.

It’s becoming clearer and clearer with each passing start that Bard is just better suited in the bullpen. It would appear as though he lacks the stuff and command while pitching in the low- to mid-90s with his fastball that he has when he’s pitching in the upper-90s. It’s true that even 200 decent innings is more valuable to a team than 60 dominant ones, but he doesn’t appear to be able to meet even that modest requirement.

The problem for the Red Sox is that they don’t need relievers right now—and they definitely do need starters. If anything they could afford to trade a reliever or two in order to allay the log-jam of effective hurlers they now possess for the late innings. Meanwhile, with Clay Buchholz’s ineffectiveness, Jon Lester’s underwhelming start, and Felix Doubront’s assured eventual regression, the Red Sox rotation is alarmingly thin for a team with playoff aspirations in the American League.

If they put Bard back in the bullpen, he could easily return to his former, dominant self, but their need is in the rotation. It’s a catch-22 that invariably means that Bard will likely continue to start until a better option presents itself.

*totally made up word