In baseball, everything starts with the pitcher. Each play begins and sometimes, if it's done right, ends with the pitcher (sorry, Kevin Correia!). Being the center of attention takes mental strength. The very act of standing on a mound in front of thousands and beginning each and every play requires a strong mind. Everyone is waiting on you. What's more, everyone is watching you. Everyone. You get to begin when you want to begin. The catcher, the fielders, the batter, the umpire, the other players, the fans, the cameras are all waiting, staring in anticipation. It's not hard to understand the pressure. It stands to reason that someone somewhere might succumb to it.
That's why if you're a fan of pitching or possibly even a pitcher yourself, the name Daniel Bard may scare you. It should. You probably know Bard, but in case not, he was the hard-throwing first-round pick of the Boston Red Sox who rose to prominence as perhaps the best reliever in baseball not named Mariano Rivera between 2009 and 2011. During that stretch he struck out 213 in 197 mostly high-leverage innings, a strikeout rate roughly 30 percent above a league average reliever. Bard was the guy who pitched in the seventh or eighth inning in a close game. He was the guy who came in to clean up the mess left by other relievers. Closer Jonathan Papelbon got the saves, the entrance music, the press, and the money. Daniel Bard got the big outs.
He got those outs with a combination of pitches that sometimes bordered on unfair. Like this one, to Nick Swisher:
…and this one to Mark Teixeira (to really get the movement, watch the catcher's glove):
Then for Bard, not unlike his pitches, the bottom fell out. The moment it happened is debatable. Some say it was at the end of the 2011 season, where, like the rest of the Red Sox, Bard came apart. That September, Bard's walk rate went from one every four innings to nine in 11 innings, and he gave up 14 runs. Still, his strikeouts were there, and in retrospect it looks like one of those months where he got a bit wild with probably some bad luck tossed in as well.
Others say it was the conversion to starting in 2012 that did him in. That might be true but if so it was a gradual process. After his first four starts Bard held a sub-4.00 ERA and was averaging a strikeout an inning. The walks were high (4.5 per nine innings) but he was just learning to start so that was understandable. Things got progressively worse from there, until a June 3 start in Toronto where Bard didn't make it out of the second inning. He gave up five runs, walked six, hit two batters, and generally looked like he had little idea where the ball was going to go after he released it.
Bard was sent to Triple-A where he did not improve. He was moved back to the bullpen where he did not improve. He was brought back to Boston where he did not improve, and sent back to Triple-A where, say it with me, he did not improve.
Following spring training this past March, Bard was sent to Double-A. The Red Sox said they wanted him to realize that he wasn't a few good appearances away from returning to Boston. He had real issues to overcome. Whether he realized that or not is irrelevant. Bard did not improve.
Still, when there was an opening in the roster in late April, the Red Sox called him up. Mostly it was because he was one of the only relievers they could call up without having to move people around on the 40-man roster, but at the time it may have seemed like a homecoming. It may have seemed like Bard's return meant he had conquered whatever demons were keeping him from making major league hitters look silly for a living. The reality was anything but.
Bard made two appearances. The first was a non-descript ninth inning in a 7-2 game against Houston. The second came two days later against the same club. Bard threw 11 pitches, two for strikes. Here is the pitch plot.
Bard's control is gone. His command is gone. He has outings where he can throw the ball near the strike zone and follows them with appearances where it looks like it's his first time on a mound. The Red Sox don't know what to do with Daniel Bard, but that just makes them like Bard.
I hadn't intended to give a full history of Daniel Bard's collapse, but now that I have, I realize why I did. Maybe hidden somewhere in the details is some faded explanation, something that would shed some light on why one of the best relievers in baseball, a pitcher at the top of his profession, in just over a year's time, became a bad Double-A reliever. Or, as I wrote in this year's Baseball Prospectus Annual, "What can one say about Bard that hasn't already been said about a five-car pile-up on the interstate?" But mostly, it's because of the questions it raises, three specifically.
1. Why doesn't this happen more often?
It's hard to say how much it happens, but it might happen more often than we think. When initially considering this question I tried to think of pitchers who suffered something along the lines of Bard's implosion. The obvious parallel here is to Rick Ankiel, who melted down in the 2000 playoffs, but there's also the godfather of this sort of thing, Steve Blass. Then there are the second basemen who couldn't throw to first (Chuck Knoblauch springs to mind), and the catchers who couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher. Those may be different illnesses, but I'm categorizing them together in a broad sense as illnesses that A) are mental in nature, and B) prevent an otherwise healthy player from playing baseball up to his previously established ability.
The above are all examples of major leaguers. One suspects that minor leaguers might develop such problems at an even higher rate than major leaguers, but even if the rate is the same that's still a relatively large number of players over the last 20 years. Bard is just the latest example.
2. Why did it happen to Bard?
It's easy to speculate, as it could really be any number of things. Scouts can look at Bard and determine that his release point is different, that his velocity is down, or that his shoulder is flying open during his delivery, but those are likely symptoms, not causes, of the greater problem. I could offer any number of unsubstantiated possibilities here, but the truth is I don't know, and you don't know. I'd be shocked if Daniel Bard or the Red Sox organization has much of an answer either.
3. What does this mean for Daniel Bard's career?
For now Bard is still on the Red Sox 40-man roster because we are still close enough to 2010 and 2011, when Bard struck out 150 hitters in 147 2/3 innings while posting an ERA+ of 166. Time moves on though, and gradually that success will fade into the past and Bard will begin to be that guy who used to be someone but now can't get Double-A hitters out.
As of this writing, Bard last pitched on May 15 against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. He gave up two runs in one inning. He walked five. He threw two wild pitches. He did not improve. The Red Sox decided to, in General Manager Ben Cherington's words, "give him a little break." Since then, the Red Sox have moved Bard to the disabled list. He is now reportedly recovered from an abdominal strain, and could resume pitching soon. In any case, it doesn't seem like anyone is counting on much from Daniel Bard.
If the Red Sox do drop him there will certainly be no shortage of suitors offering minor league deals, thinking that they hold the key, the secret ingredient to the magic potion that will turn Daniel Bard back into what he was. He'll get a couple shots with new teams and maybe one of them will figure something out. You never know.
Daniel Bard is a modern cautionary tale of the pressures and fatigue the modern game imposes on its players. Or maybe he's just a guy who had a problem and it happened to manifest in the most public of arenas. Maybe with some time and the proper coaching he can still be The Guy who gets The Guy out with the game on the line. But for now, he'd probably settle for throwing a strike.