Daniel Bard walked five batters on Wednesday night in a Double-A game. He is now walking roughly three times as many batters as he is striking out, with 17 walks against six punch outs in 12-2/3 innings. When he does manage to get the ball in the strike zone, he gets hit. He's somehow dug himself an even deeper hole to climb out of, and it has pitching coach Juan Nieves concerned about him:
"I'm concerned over, of course, how he's doing mentally," said Nieves. "You're always concerned about a guy's mental state when he's engaged in an at-bat and doesn't do well. It continues to be the same thing."
"It was never going to be a quick fix with him, because of the residue of everything that has happened through a whole year of battle. It's going to take some time," he said. "I think the strength is there, the arm strength is there, it's a matter of him buying into it and creating some consistency. You know what it comes down to? Him not thinking about hitters or anything like that, just hit the glove, hit the glove, hit the glove. Let the stuff play. His stuff is too unbelievable to be turned off, or to be aware of, oh my God I'm going to get hit, except he's not getting hit, because he's walking guys."
Bard had admitted in the past that he gets in his own head and over-thinks things. It's what led to problems as a starter -- nibbling low in the zone, aiming instead of pitching, focusing on grounders instead of using his natural stuff to succeed -- and it's very likely what helped put him back in the minors once more for 2013, and brought him to where he is now.
Alex Speier reports that Bard has thrown strikes just 34 percent of the time in 2013. To give you some context, the league-average strike percentage in the majors tends to be around 61 percent or so, and Felix Doubront, for all of his walks in the majors this year, has been able to hit that threshold -- nearly 30 percent more often than Bard.
His velocity still isn't quite where it was, not that it matters very much since he's well past the effectively wild Bard of the past and just plain old wild nowadays. But, in concert with his inability to find the strike zone, it's just caused even more problems.
Where can Bard go from here? Technically, the only direction left is up, but he hasn't shown much that tells you reversing course is going to happen. As Nieves said, Bard needs to get out of his own way, and get back to what he was doing. It's not even about mechanics at this point -- it's about pitching instead of thinking. It might seem silly, but this is a game where Jonathan Papelbon, who would be the first to admit to you he isn't exactly a Rhodes Scholar, has a career ERA that's nearly twice as good as the league average. Sometimes, that ability to just shut down and pitch, to put previous struggles behind you and move ever-forward as Papelbon has always been able to do, matters more than anything.
No one is saying that you don't want an intelligent pitcher, but Bard's brain seems to be more of a source of trouble than it's worth at this point. A return to instinct on the mound would be preferable, but it's to be seen if he can get back to that point.
It's to seen if the Red Sox let Bard keep his 40-man spot in the future as a sign of good faith in his return, or if they are eventually just going to have to designate him for assignment to get the spot back to someone who can actually use it. At this point, it's hard to blame them if they tried to sneak him through waivers -- the chances of someone claiming him are likely the lowest they've ever been -- the next time they are in need of a 40-man roster spot, rather than lose someone else with a better chance of contributing in 2013.
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