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Remembering Daniel Bard’s dominance

Daniel Bard is now known for being a great what if, but he was once simply one of the best.

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

The Red Sox have had a fairly tumultuous run in recent years, but the lowest point was undoubtedly the 2012 season. This was a disaster from the moment it began and will always be remembered as the “Bobby V Year,” and not in a fond, loving way. So much was horrible about that year, from the manager to the team’s first horrid finish in recent memory, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Perhaps more depressing than all of that, though, was the demise of one of the team’s most promising players in Daniel Bard. This was, of course, the year they tried to convert him to the rotation and instead ended up being the year in which he totally lost his ability to pitch and was really the last time we saw him in the majors. This isn’t necessarily on Bobby V as some would have you believe — many things were his fault that year, but this one was on Ben Cherington as well — but it ruined what should have been one of the better Red Sox reliever careers.

I bring all of this up because on Thursday we learned that, after multiple attempts at making a comeback to the major leagues, Daniel Bard is officially retiring from the game of baseball. The former Red Sox stud setup man sat down with SB Nation to discuss the decision, which you can read here. That piece really illustrates how much work he put into getting back to where he once was briefly for the first few years of his career, and how it just never came back. It’s startling to see such a steep decline with no chance of a return to its old form, but it’s also a reminder that everything in baseball is temporary. It’s just more temporary for some than others. Today, though, I don’t really want to focus too much on where it all went wrong for Bard. We’ve heard that story enough. Instead, let’s go back to the late-aughts and early....tens? I don’t know what we call this decade. Either way, let’s just take a quick minute to remind ourselves just how special Bard was before it all went wrong.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Back in 2009, the Red Sox had a stellar bullpen that was led by an in-his-prime Jonathan Papelbon. At a position that was known for being so volatile, Papelbon was joined by a very small group of pitchers in terms of consistent, star-level production on a year-to-year basis. With Hideki Okajima starting to get up there in age, the Red Sox were in search of their next setup man to place behind Papelbon, and perhaps their heir apparent to the closer role. Enter: Daniel Bard. All the former first round pick did that year was appear in 49 games and strike out over 11 batters per nine innings while posting a 3.65 ERA, a 3.41 FIP and a 2.83 DRA as a rookie. Remember, this was not today’s game when ever reliever strikes out a batter per inning. In 2009, the average major-league reliever was striking out just 7.6 batters per nine.

That would just be the start of something great for Bard, who’d spend three dominant seasons in the Red Sox bullpen, combining with Papelbon to form one of the game’s greatest one-two punches in the eighth and ninth innings. Over that three-year stretch, Bard was the 12th most valuable reliever in baseball by bWAR and 23rd by fWAR. His worst DRA- over that stretch was 67, meaning that at his worst he was 33 percent better than the league-average pitcher by the all-encompassing pitching metric. To top it all off, this was all through his age-26 season, too, meaning that the sky was the limit. There was little reason to believe he was anything besides a future long-term closer.

It wasn’t just the numbers that were impressive either. While he ended up with strong stats, what I’ll remember was the simple thrill from watching him pitch. Bard was a truly dominant force on the mound, and when he was really on it was something special to watch. Standing at 6’4”, he was a large presence on the mound and his repertoire didn’t disappoint. At a time when hitting triple digits was still something to take notice of, Bard was threatening with each and every fastball and sitting around 97-99 whenever he took the mound. He paired that big fastball with a dominant, sweeping slider that induced a whiff half the time it induced a swing. To me, there is no more fun type of reliever than one with a power fastball/slider combination, and Bard was the perfect example of that.

When things take a turn for the worse in a sporting event, it can be incredibly frustrating as a fan. When it’s bad enough, it can take a lot of time to truly recover. I’m not sure if I’ve recovered from David Tyree, for example, even though the Patriots have had plenty of success since then. Likewise, it took me a while to get over how much potential was thrown away when Bard was converted to a starter and pitched his way out of the game in the blink of an eye. In a way, Bard is a perfect personification of the Red Sox teams on which he played. Those 2009-2012 teams all had the talent to be something special, and at times they flashed that potential and showed us just how good they can be. Ultimately, though, things ended in disappointment, and it’s often easier to focus on that than the good. With Bard officially retiring from the game, I think it’s a good reminder that it’s okay to focus on the positives sometimes, even when the negative endings can be so overwhelming.