Whether he ends up staying in the starting rotation, closing games or returning to his set-up role, his preparation for 2012 as a starter should present the team with a win-win situation when making the decision of where Bard will pitch.
When Bard begins spring training, for all intents and purposes, he will be a starting pitcher for the Red Sox. Preparing with that mindset will benefit him, whether he ends up in the rotation or back in the bullpen.
As a starter, Bard will need to improve two things. First, his conditioning. He will need to get stronger to better withstand pitching 200-plus innings compared to only 73. His second priority will be to develop his secondary pitches. While the conditioning is a no-brainer, the secondary pitches that he will have extra work with may make the biggest impact.
The biggest difference between pitching in the bullpen and in the starting rotation — besides the rest between appearances and the number of innings thrown — is that starting pitchers have to face the same batters more than once. If Bard had to face the same guy twice in the same outing, either the rest of the Red Sox bullpen was empty or something had gone very, very wrong that inning.
Now, he will need to be able to get hitters out in different ways the second and third time through the lineup. If he struck Jose Bautista out looking in the first inning, there’s a good chance Joey Bats will remember that when he comes to the plate in the fourth. Compare that to facing Bard out of the pen, when Bautista is most likely going to rely more on video than short-term memory to remind him to watch for that front-door slider.
So as he works in spring training this year, Bard will need to mix up his pitch sequences a lot more and give hitters a lot more to think about when they step up the plate. He’ll also need to work on improving those secondary pitches because he will be throwing them more.
The mark of a good starter is that they can command three pitches for strikes and fool hitters. A back-end reliever, on the other hand, only needs two. Very rarely — like Mariano Rivera — a reliever can get by with only one pitch. A starter doesn’t have that luxury.
Jonathan Papelbon, for example, was attempting to break into the Red Sox rotation not so long ago before the 2007 season. When he failed to develop that crucial third pitch — his slider — the Red Sox opted to slot him back in at closer, where he thrived. That season he trained as a starter may arguably have been his best year.
Neftali Feliz, the fireballing closer for the Texas Rangers, also followed a similar path to becoming a stud closer. Feliz was a starter in the minor leagues before the Rangers converted him to a closer. He went on to win Rookie of the Year honors in 2010 while closing 40 games for the club. The next spring, he reported to camp as a starting pitcher.
“I’ve had more repetitions and been able to throw to more hitters and throw more innings,” Feliz said of the experience in an interview with ESPN. “I’m more ready than I was last year. I’m ready to do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Feliz’s work as a starter in spring training allowed him to get more experience under his belt and fine-tune his secondary pitches. When he ended up staying in the bullpen to remain the team’s closer, he was more than up to the task during the regular season, finishing the season with 32 saves.
Notice a pattern? Both players worked as starters during the spring, challenging themselves to better their off-speed repertoire and build up their stamina, and ended up with career years.
If Daniel Bard is anything like those two — and his fastball says that he is — then the opposition will have a tough time dealing with Bard no matter where he ends up pitching.