Daniel Bard Is Struggling And Probably Fine

BOSTON, MA: Daniel Bard #51 of the Boston Red Sox heads in during a rain delay in the eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

It's been a rough stretch at the wrong time for Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard, but despite his recent scuffles, it doesn't seem like there's much to worry about.

Of all the Mystery Science Theater 3000 productions that I've seen, Mitchell might be my favorite. I don't know. It's really good. This is a .gif I made from Mitchell a few years ago:

Mitchell4

That .gif represents collective panic. I am including it here because reliever Daniel Bard has lately caused a lot of Red Sox fans to panic. Bard, as you probably know, has been a rock in the Red Sox bullpen. A year ago, he posted a 1.93 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning. Through August this season, he had a 2.03 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning. Strikeouts? Control? Ground balls? An eye-popping fastball? Bard had everything, and he looked like one of the top relievers in the league.

Then, September:

4-2/3 innings
10 runs
5 walks
5 strikeouts

Bard took a blown save (albeit one of those weird setup-man blown saves) on September 1. He took a loss and allowed five runs on September 7. He took a loss and allowed a run on two hits on September 10. And this Wednesday he took a loss and allowed three runs. It was his third loss in three appearances, and given that the Red Sox have been in a team slump and that their fan base isn't known for being level-headed, Bard's struggles have become a pretty big story. Is he finished? What if he's finished? What hope do the Red Sox have if they can no longer count on Daniel Bard?

Bard, certainly, has not been good. And he's chosen a lousy time to not be good. That's a problem. But the more I look at this, the less reason I see for grave concern.

His velocity is pretty much intact. There was a small dip, but yesterday his fastball averaged 97 miles per hour. That's right in the neighborhood of where it's always been, so it's not like Bard has lost his bullets.

He says he's healthy. From Nick Cafardo:

"He’s a guy that will bounce back. His arm’s feeling great and healthy. We’ll get it back going in the right direction.’’

Really, Bard's biggest problem has been control. Throwing strikes. On September 7, he threw just 17 of 36 pitches for strikes. Wednesday, he threw just 11 of 21 pitches for strikes. In those two appearances, Bard allowed eight runs on two hits, which tells you how much he's been his own enemy.

And we're talking about a small sample of games, and an issue Bard's faced before. Between May 13-15 this year, Bard threw 29 of 59 pitches for strikes. Between July 16-23, he threw 43 of 76 pitches for strikes. Between June 8-10 of last season, he threw 20 of 41 pitches for strikes. Between July 19-22, he threw 21 of 43 pitches for strikes. Between September 4-11, he threw 33 of 71 pitches for strikes. He bounced back from each of those slumps. He had a little problem, he fixed it, and he resumed being very good.

Which isn't to say that any struggle can be written off if it's a struggle a player's had before. But with Bard, I just don't see any evidence that this is anything more than a blip. From a column by Brian McPherson:

"The timing with my delivery is just not there," [Bard] said. "I can feel it on every pitch. Something feels a little bit different. I've been through it before."
...
"It's something I've fixed before, and I'll fix it again," Bard said. "I'll do what it takes the next couple of days to put in the work and find my delivery again."

Bard believes that his mechanics are a little off. I went through some comparison video and I couldn't spot anything. I'm no mechanics expert, but I have a pretty good idea what I'm doing, and there was nothing obvious. The problem is thus presumably minor, maybe a release-point consistency issue, and I feel comfortable in assuming that Bard will get back on track. Like he says, he's dealt with this before.

Daniel Bard is in a slump. That much is clear. Yet the Red Sox remain odds-on favorites to make the playoffs, and once they're in there, I don't see much compelling reason to believe that Bard will be a liability. The timing of his struggles increases their visibility, but not their significance.

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