Singing a Bard’s Tale

Daniel Bard

Daniel Bard

Daniel Bard burst onto the scene this year after weathering concerns of a worrisome first professional season in 2007. Bard struggled in his role as a starter after arriving from the University of North Carolina, both at Single A and High A levels. His poor performance was punctuated by damaging walk rates that year, totaling a lofty 9.02 BB/9 in 75 innings.

Carrying the burden of a bust label, the front office quickly reevaluated Bard’s skill set and moved him to the bullpen in 2008. He hasn’t looked back since.

I first extolled my praise of Daniel Bard when I was debating the worth of Papelbon’s save-inflated trade value a few months back. I wondered aloud of Theo would be digging into the coin purse for $200,000 per inning after Papelbon’s final arbitration year in 2011. My own standards for evaluating pitchers still falls under the concept I mentioned then:

The moral of the story? Closers, and nearly all bullpen arms, are both volatile and replaceable. Small samples of innings can do this, so the safest thing to do? Ignore the “fun” stats like saves and ERA, and focus on his Big 3 skills to properly set the player’s value.

While I only touched on Daniel Bard’s 2009 season, I did bring up the quick yearly comparison of the two pitchers. Finding that Bard and Papelbon both turned in almost identical “Big 3” seasons, it was obvious the Sox had a great thing going. Any time you can end the last two innings with pitchers who do the three most important things(strike batters outs, prevent walks, force ground balls), you have a great chance of reducing fluky hits and other fallout from balls in play. Remember, for as much as BABIP is a ground ball pitcher’s friend, she is also a venegeful shrew that routinely likes to plant looping pop fly balls in front of your center fielder.

Back to Bard, I wanted to investigate some of his more fringe results and see if we could pin a “why” to his success. I like to focus on plate discipline with pitchers, and seeing how batters react to the offerings they are faced with. Bard did two things exceptionally well this year. Batters swung often and missed often.

Bard excelled at getting swinging strikes (a ball not contacted is a ball that cannot become a hit!). Batters swung more often at Bard’s pitches than the league average, swinging at 29.5% of balls outside the zone, and 70.3% of pitches in the zone. This exceeded the MLB averages, 23.77%, and 65.93%, respectively. Bard was a full standard deviation ahead of the curve for balls outside of the strike zone. While batters swung more frequently, the rate in which contact was made was much lower than the MLB average. Batters made contact with only 57.3% of pitches outside the zone, and 79.4% of pitches in the zone. Both of these numbers beat the MLB average of 62.2% and 87.8%. Bard’s whiff rate on pitches in the zone was almost two full standard deviations better than the average!

While Daniel still has only 49 1/3 MLB innings to call his own, his ability to generate the swinging strike sure has been excellent to start. You hear frequently about pitchers “pitching to contact” but I find it is a concept that is quite misleading. What is not normally considered is that once the baseball makes contact with a bat, the pitcher has already been removed from the forces that affect where the ball could end up. No manner of force, except for magical flubber or a complete rejection of Newton’s 3rd Law, can allow a pitcher to somehow affect what happens at the moment contact is made. All a pitcher is able to do is intelligently locate his pitches, and control them to travel to the plate in a specific manner. Once the baseball leaves his hand, the batter has full control over the quality of contact. The pitcher must do what he can to decrease the chances of solid contact, but it’s not always fool proof–we’ve seen Vlad Guerrero tattoo splitters about to bounce in front of the plate before.

This is why considering things external to ERA (BABIP, LOB%, HR/FB%) are integral to evaluating a pitcher’s future performance, and why sometimes someone’s sparking 2.90 ERA is hollow (I’m talking to you, Dice-K).

The less contact a pitcher endures, the less likely his performance can get marred by some bloop hits, poor fielding, or just superb contact skills possessed by a hitter. If we do get contact, pitchers strive to only have contact be low in the zone such that the chance a batter can get under the ball is lessened. This will get us groundballs, outcomes in play more likely to be in the pitcher’s favor.

This is why Daniel’s ability to locate his pitches and skill in creating movement is going to be integral to his success. If he can sustain another few seasons of high whiff rates, the back end of the bullpen will only become more of an asset.