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Draft Prospect Retro – North Carolina’s Daniel Bard

This site has only been around a few months, but my own personal obsession with tracking amateur talent goes back years. Indulge me for a moment as I share an old piece I wrote about the newest member of the Boston Red Sox bullpen, Daniel Bard. This was, I think, the very first “published” thing I ever wrote, so please do keep that in mind as you mentally tear it to shreds. Part of the fun of following amateur players from high school to college (or not) to the pros is seeing them eventually make it as big leaguers, so it seems like as appropriate a time as any to revisit my first brush with Bard now that he is on the cusp of making his debut in the bigs. The original date of publication was March 28, 2006, so don’t hold any of the stupid predictions against me…

Photo Credit: duelingcouches.blogspot.com

Photo Credit: duelingcouches.blogspot.com

North Carolina righthanded starter Daniel Bard is one of the most highly touted pitching prospects at the amateur level. His much hyped game really needs no introduction…and yet, in an attempt to be as thorough as possible here, allow me to rattle off a sampling of his accomplishments and accolades. Bard was a twentieth round pick by the New York Yankees after graduating from Charlotte Christian School. He spurned the Yanks to sign with the University of North Carolina – good thing, too, or else this piece would make a heck of a lot less sense. The decision to head to Chapel Hill paid off for Bard as he went on to win the ACC Freshman of the Year award and a spot on the Freshman All-American team as named by Collegiate Baseball. Bard followed up his strong freshman season with an even stronger sophomore campaign. His sophomore year was followed up by his breakthrough performance pitching for the Wareham Gatemen (love that team name) of the Cape Cod League. Baseball America named him to their College Summer All-America second team and rated him the league’s number two professional prospect (the number one prospect that summer was his UNC teammate, lefthanded starter Andrew Miller). Heading into 2006, Bard was named to just about every preseason All-America and All-ACC team possible – Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, and SEBaseball.com all lauded him as player to watch in 2006. Baseball America finished up the Bard-lovefest by naming him college baseball’s number four junior prospect.

Despite all of the glowing praise, I was skeptical of Bard going into the game I “scouted” for two reasons. First off, Bard has a rather high career BB/IP rate (74 BBs in 184.2 IP) and reports of his shaky control in the scouting community are well documented. The second concern about Bard deals with scouting reports which claim he lacks any kind of solid secondary pitches. Those two concerns led me to mentally prepare for one of those classic dominating pitchers who can get by in the college game by simply blowing away lesser talented competition with a fastball better than any other pitch they’ve seen before. If old baseball clichés are more your thing, try to imagine a player who scouts like to proclaim is more of a thrower than a pitcher – this description is exactly what I was expecting as I settled into my seat behind home plate at Boshamer Stadium. It seems the two concerns over Bard’s game go hand in hand. He doesn’t have the secondary stuff that can be thrown consistently for strikes which hurts his overall performance. Because of this, he tends to get wild at times; check his BB, HBP, and WP numbers as evidence for this. Bard has had trouble controlling his less refined secondary stuff; perhaps, if he sharpened up said secondary stuff and managed to get his slider over for strikes consistently, his control as a whole would improve as well.

Bard’s lack of control and relatively weak secondary stuff will have significant implications on his success in the major leagues unless addressed. If Bard has shown iffy control at the college level (where it is not at all uncommon to see players overanxious and willing to go after that first ball fastball, especially when facing a pitcher capable of throwing a 95 MPH heater), one can only imagine the potential difficulties he’ll face when going against pros. Advanced professional hitters eat up any pitcher who relies solely on his fastball in an attempt to blow people away. Bard has been able to get by with just that four-seam fastball of his thus far, so the pressure to develop better breaking stuff when facing inferior collegiate competition isn’t there. If a guy can simply throw a fastball by a hitter, then he can undoubtedly get himself into the bad habit of simply trying to do so every time. Why mess around with setting up hitters and developing quality breaking stuff when it just hasn’t been necessary for him to do to this point? I’m sure Bard realizes (along with the UNC coaching staff, hopefully) if he wants to reach the bigs some day, these are the flaws in his game he will need to iron out as a pro.

More on Bard’s draft stock, his start against Purdue, and a brief afterword that ties it all together after the jump…

Purdue @ North Carolina – March 4, 2006

After Bard knocked Purdue shortstop and All America candidate Mitch Hilligoss to the dirt with a pitch that hit him square in the helmet, one of the Purdue fans behind us (an elderly lady if memory serves) remarked about Bard, “Look at him. He walks like he’s tough stuff out there.” I don’t know who that lady was, but I wish I did so I could properly credit her for her simple, yet profound observation of young Daniel Bard. It’s hard to explain, but Bard just has the look of a big league pitcher out on the mound. After hitting Hilligoss to start the game, he didn’t appear phased in the least bit; I’m actually not sure I saw him react at all. Big things (peripheral stats, component ratios, etc.) matter most of course, but little observations such as the response of a young pitcher after something goes awry can be helpful performance evaluating tools as well.

With Hilligoss on first to lead off the game, Bard got to work on the Boilermaker lineup.  It looked for a moment after the beanball that the bad, wild Bard would show up on this day, but he came right back to get catcher Spencer Ingaldson looking at a called third strike. This was followed by a stellar defensive play by Carolina first baseman Chad Flack on a sharply hit groundball by Purdue’s Eric Wolfe. In the second, Bard got himself into a bit of a jam. Two singles were sandwiched between Bard’s second strikeout of the game (Ryan White, swinging) and the Boilermakers had two men on with one out. Bard struck out Eric Osborn (looking) for the second out of the inning before hitting his second batter of the game. The victim this time was Dane Wolfe, who was unfortunate enough to catch a Bard fastball square in the back. Bard faced Purdue’s nine-hole hitter with two outs and the bases loaded; he popped up in foul ground to first baseman Chad Flack. Inning over.

The first two innings were a rocky start for Bard compared to the four that followed. After getting Kyle Reesing to pop up ending the second, the good Bard showed up. When everything is working for him, he is a groundball machine – not literally of course, I don’t think many colleges give out athletic scholarships for machines these days. Bard got three successive groundouts in the third, shook off an inning opening error in the fourth with back to back strikeouts, added two more K’s to his line in the fifth, and (am I getting redundant?) set the lineup down in order in the sixth while striking out two more. That’s four innings, six strikeouts, and five groundouts (one popup) with the only man reaching base coming on a Bryan Steed error.

Bard ran into some difficulties in the seventh inning (Carolina was up 4-0 at this point) when he allowed his first two runs of the game to score on an Eric Osborn homerun. This homerun came on a fastball that Eric Osborn guessed right on. Osborn is listed at 5’11”, 180 pounds. There is no way in the world that he is that big; he looked to be about two inches shorter and at least fifteen pounds lighter. The Eric Osborn’s of the college baseball world should not be hitting homeruns off of Daniel Bard, but as long as Bard’s secondary stuff remains suspect, hitters can sit on his fastball and just try to take their best swings at it. Osborn swung as hard as he could and put Purdue back in the ballgame with one stroke of the bat. Bard followed up the homerun by issuing his first walk of the afternoon, but settled down after that to strike out Kyle Reesing and get Mitch Hilligoss to ground out to short. Bard went on to retire five in a row before a bunt single by, you guessed it, Eric Osborn in the ninth. Osborn may be tiny, but he was a thorn in the side of Bard all day. The Carolina dugout began to stir and many in the ballpark believed Tar Heels closer Jonathan Hovis was going to be brought on to get the cheap one out save to end it, but the Heels stuck with Bard. The move paid off as his 111th pitch of the day resulted in pinch hitter Jordan Comadena’s game ending groundout to first.

Bard’s match ups with Mitch Hilligoss over the course of the day made for very interesting games within the game. Hilligoss is considered a legitimate pro prospect and there is added value in seeing two players with professional futures go head to head with one another. Hilligoss reached base after getting plunked in the helmet in the first and, unfortunately for him, this turned out to be the highlight of his day. Hilligoss grounded out twice to the shortstop (one time on a hard hit ball, one time on more of a dribbler) and also struck out swinging at a fastball.

The way Bard racked up his outs was impressive. There were only 2 fly ball outs for the game – neither of which were really fly balls at all (both infield popups). The North Carolina outfield did not have to touch a ball all afternoon long. Bard induced 11 groundball outs and picked up 13 strikeouts. The missing 27th out came on a Mitch Hilligoss caught stealing in the first inning.

Bard threw mostly four-seam fastballs through the first two innings of the game, but seemed to alter his game plan after giving up two hits and hitting two players in the first two frames. He rediscovered his slider beginning in the third and used it effectively enough to at least make hitters less likely to sit on the fastball…up until Osborn beat him deep in the seventh anyway. Bard’s fastball is special. It was probably the first thing that jumped out at me in warm-ups before the game began and left a lasting impression long after I left the park. There was no radar gun at the park, but it really wasn’t necessary with the way he was throwing (for the record, scouts place Bard’s fastball in the 94-95 MPH range, with the ability to touch 98). The pop of the mitt when the fastball connected was simply different than the same sound with other pitchers on the hill. The reaction of hitters to the fastball was interesting to note as well. It took the Purdue team two full turns through the lineup before they began to get any kind of timing down on his four-seamer. The number of late swing foul balls and groundball dribblers the opposite way showed the way Bard’s mid-90’s fastball overmatched the Purdue hitters – it was as if they hadn’t seen a fastball like it in a long time.

Pitchers with great fastballs get plenty of chances as they advance professionally, but eventually a lack of strong secondary stuff catches up. To this end, it is evident to even a casual observer that Bard’s slider needs a good bit of work. He wasn’t getting it over for strikes, it had a horribly inconsistent break (sometimes looking impressive, but more often just hanging out over the plate), and he only seemed confident enough in it to use it as a “show-me” pitch rather than a potential out pitch. I had read scouting reports going into the game that Bard’s curveball was his second plus pitch, but he appeared very reluctant to use it. If I was the minor league pitching coach assigned to the job of expanding Bard’s repertoire (thankfully for all parties involved I’m not), I’d advise Bard to stick to what has worked thus far. He is a big, strong pitcher with the abilities to succeed at the next level as a power pitcher.  My personal advice to him: ditch the slider and work towards picking up either a change or really attempt to refine that curve, but also take the time to focus on a two-seam that’ll sink or, if he is feeling frisky, a split. Sometimes it is necessary to embrace what you are and play to your strengths – if Bard is going to succeed, it will be as a power pitcher who keeps the ball down in the zone and strikes a large number of batters out (sounds so simple, doesn’t it?). He already throws an effective four-seam, he does an excellent job keeping the ball down, but the one thing he lacks is a true, put ’em away strike out pitch. Against Purdue the four-seamers struck out more than a few batters, but professional hitters will jump all over a fastball if they know it is coming, even with two strikes. Bottom line: Bard’s arm is special, but his pitching arsenal and control absolutely need some refinement.

Bard has excellent raw stuff, a nice fluid three-quarter arm slot on his delivery that appeared to remain consistent with nearly every pitch, a repeatable arm action every time, and the positive makeup that scouts will love. He also looks the part of a pitcher – he is a tall, lean righthander (6’4”, 202 pounds) with a nice thick lower body. He pitched wonderfully in the one game I saw and I walked away very impressed with his performance (final line: 9 IP 5 H 2 ER 1 BB 13 K). The two causes of skepticism I had going in have not completely vanished (his control as a whole was slightly less impressive when factoring in the two hit batters and his secondary stuff still needs work), but I saw enough to believe some major league team will fall in love with Bard’s arm come June. If he falls out of the top ten picks, it would be a major upset at this point – Colorado, Tampa, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Baltimore all appear to be teams that have a logical need for a pitcher like Bard. It may sound crazy (especially taking into account Bard’s recent struggles), but if Bard can maintain what appears to be an improving groundout to flyout ratio, he could get consideration by Colorado as the second overall pick in the draft.

Afterword

Bard fell to the 28th overall pick to Boston. After a disastrous 2007 season starting for Boston’s two A-ball affiliates, Bard put together an excellent campaign pitching out of the bullpen in 2008. He still has that power four-seamer (97-100), but his low-90s power two-seamer and mid-80s slider make him especially tough out of the bullpen. He never really developed that dominant second pitch (let alone a usuable third pitch), but his ability to mix up the two fastballs with that above-average slider has gotten him this far. It’s a little bit of a shame he never put it all together to become the near top of the rotation starter his talent once hinted at, but Bard and the Red Sox still deserve a tremendous amount of credit for identifying and then refining what he was best at. Boston picks 28th again this year and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say they would be mighty happy watching a player that combines upside and utility like Bard fall into their laps once again.

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