What can we make of Daniel Bard the starting pitcher?
Among the three prominent American League relievers-turned-starters, Daniel Bard might be the most mystifying. One cannot merely question his ability to make the move; one must also ask whether he's actually going to make the move.
Judging by every comment made by Boston Red Sox management this winter, as well as by Bard's early-spring preparation, the right-hander evidently is going to be a member of the Red Sox's season-opening rotation. As with Neftali Feliz and Chris Sale, the other two pitchers referred to who are making the conversion, both of whom will be discussed in their own "30 Questions" columns, Bard is, as of this moment, being prepped to start.
It's a strategy that makes sense. The Red Sox's top three projected starting pitchers combined to make 75 starts last season, while the seven candidates besides Bard for the other two rotation spots -- Alfredo Aceves, Aaron Cook, Felix Doubront, Andrew Miller, Ross Ohlendorf, Vicente Padilla and Carlos Silva -- combined for 42 starts and a 4.96 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in the majors in 2011. Incidentally, exclude Aceves, and the group's ERA rises to 6.19, the WHIP to 1.77.
At the same time, the Red Sox's bullpen depth is somewhat questionable, their top two relievers (closer Andrew Bailey and setup man Mark Melancon) are offseason acquisitions with little in terms of experience or quality behind them. Bard has considerable relief experience; he has made 192 relief appearances for them since 2009, and has made every one of his 249 professional appearances since the 2008 season coming out of the bullpen.
It's no wonder, therefore, that there is much debate surrounding Bard's 2012 role. He could be as integral to the team's rotation as bullpen plans.
Based upon the current plan plus his ability, bank on Bard cracking the rotation.
While Bard's faulty command as a starter was largely responsible for his initial shift to the bullpen, which happened during the 2007-08 Hawaiian Winter League, he has both made advances in that area and widened his arsenal since then. Though he averaged 9.36 walks per nine innings in his 22 starts in Class A ball in 2007, he has turned in 3.48, 3.72, 3.62 and 2.96 numbers in the category in his four pro campaigns since -- the latter, from 2011, is naturally a career best.
As for his arsenal, Bard now possesses a weapon that he previously lacked as a starter: a changeup, which he has thrown almost exclusively versus left-handed hitters (147 of the 149 he has thrown in the majors, according to ESPN Stats & Information's pitch-tracking data). In 43 career plate appearances versus lefties that have ended with a changeup, opponents have managed .200/.256/.350 rates and a 35.1 percent miss rate on all swings against Bard's changeup. Small sample or not, it's a promising sign that he's not a one-dimensional flamethrower.
That's critical for Bard, because he's a pitcher whose strengths are a dominating, high-90s, capable-of-topping-100 fastball and a slider responsible for the ninth-most strikeouts (81) among relief pitchers the past two seasons combined. Considering he's going to have to temper his fastball velocity to last deeper into games -- something discussed in the Texas Rangers/Feliz "30 Questions" -- Bard will need to rely more upon a tertiary pitch to succeed.
Dialing down his fastball is one of two concerns for Bard. Incredibly, 87 percent of the fastballs he has thrown in the major leagues have been clocked at 96 mph or faster, and with those fastballs he has limited foes to .212/.296/.315 rates while generating misses on 20.0 percent of swings. With the mere 113 career fastballs he has thrown 95 mph or slower, meanwhile, he has afforded .579/.615/1.000 rates and a 15.9 miss percentage, albeit in a minuscule 27 plate appearances.
That's not to say that Bard's fastball must register at 96-plus mph or all hope is lost; it merely stresses his unfamiliarity throwing it at a lower velocity. It places that part of his game somewhat in question, and it increases the importance of a tertiary pitch to keep hitters guessing.
The other concern is stamina, and a potential team-imposed innings cap as he transitions into the more taxing starter's role. Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure has already been quoted as concerned about Bard's workload; it is unclear, however, whether the team might cap the right-hander's innings at 100, 130, 160, or not at all. But considering Bard has never thrown more than 77 2/3 innings in any professional season, a 150-inning cap might be a good guess.
Therein lies the problem, as for all of Bard's considerable potential as a starter, Alexi Ogando might be his closest comparable from 2011. Ogando, after all, got off to a scorching start before cooling noticeably, partly a product of the Texas Rangers' micromanagement of his workload and partly his own fatigue. Bard might follow a similar pattern; he might be a first-half sensation who makes a brilliant sell-high candidate come June. Tread very carefully.
Bard is at least off to a hot start this spring: He tossed two scoreless, hitless innings against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday, tossing 21 of his 31 pitches for strikes. Continued success like that will cement him as the Red Sox's No. 4 starter.
You'll notice that we've projected Bard for 155 innings, and ranked him the effective No. 58 starting pitcher; remember that he's listed among relief pitchers because that was his primary role in 2011. That places him one spot ahead of fellow Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz, an interesting parallel because of the considerable upside for each. With a little luck in the health/durability departments, both could vault as many as a dozen or more spots higher.
Just make sure you're prepared to deal Bard should his projected innings total soar past his probable cap by midseason.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.