Sunday, May 27, 2012

The development of Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz

Developing players is hard.

It seems like it should be so simple. Draft a guy, move him slowly, but not too slowly, through the minor leagues. In a couple years, they break into the major league rotation. They take their lumps for a couple years, before turning into a front end starting pitcher.

It's a tempting narrative, and it happens - C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw. All high draft picks, all with somewhat fast trips through the minors, all with some struggles when they first came up, and all, now, with Cy Young Awards. We see the 2011 draft giving us a truly incredible amount of pitching talent: Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy (who still hasn't given up a run) went in the top 4. Other first rounders like Jose Hernandez, Matt Barnes and Tyler Anderson are all pitching incredibly well. All of their teams - and the fans of these teams - are beaming, thinking of their shiny new 2015 Opening Day starter.

And that's ok - it's fun to dream about the new toy. That's why we spend so my time on prospect manuals, studying the draft, comparing an incredible number of lists. We wait breathlessly for those "Top 100" Lists that come out every preseason, especially the ones from the guys who really do know who and what they're talking about - Keith Law, Jim Callis, John Sickels, and the Baseball Prospectus Team.

Sometimes players become stars, and everyone is happy. Sometimes they bust, and we chuckle years later about how Andy Yount was going to save the Red Sox. There are a lot of guys in between, though, and they're the hard ones to deal with. Kerry Wood retired this week, and Joe Posnanski had a wonderful retrospective on appreciating Wood for what he was, rather than what we hoped he could become. They just had Pat Burrell Day in Philadelphia, which seems strange because he spent his entire time in Philadelphia failing to live up to the unreasonable expectations fans had built up for him.

That brings us to Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard. Buchholz was the third of five first rounders selected by the Red Sox in 2005. Bard was the second of four first rounders the Sox took in 2006. Both were top prospects in the Red Sox system, both have had success in the major leagues, both are in the Red Sox starting rotation, and both are pitching not all that well.

The Red Sox, through last season, had accumulated more value from their draft picks since 2002 than any other organization, per this article in Fangraphs. So it seems incorrect to draw the conclusion that the Red Sox are simply incompetent. So, something else is going on here. Let's dig into both pitchers individually.

I'll start with Bard. I've written many times in this space that the best place for a team to find starting pitching help may be its own bullpen, and that pitchers who perform well in the bullpen are also likely to do so as starters. While I believe this to be true, it is also an oversimplification. The reason many successful relief pitchers turn into successful starters is because they were successful starters in the minors before being put in the bullpen to fill a need at the major league level. Derek Lowe, C.J. Wilson, Chris Sale, Neftali Feliz... all successful minor league starters.

Daniel Bard was never a successful minor league starter.

That is a big deal. I don't write it because I believe it makes him unable to transfer to the rotation, but it means he never adjusted to the way a starter pitches in the major leagues. Whenever we talk about a pitcher transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation, we talk about the pitcher learning to pace himself.  While that's part of the transition, that's an entirely incomplete description - it is not as though a pitcher just needs to throw a little bit slower, giving him the endurance to pitch for a longer time. A pitcher also needs to learn to cycle in his pitches, keep repeating his mechanics, set up batters not only for later pitches in the at-bat but for later at-bats within the game. Daniel Bard never learned to do that in the minor leagues. He came into games, threw close to 100 miles an hour, and occassionally made batters look silly with his slider and change-up, got between one and six outs, and hit the showers. It's certainly not as easy as that last sentence would have you believe, but he'd never learned to start in professional ball.

When Bard was drafted in 2006, he was a starting pitcher at the University of North Carolina. The #2 starter there, in fact, behind #7 overall pick and current teammate Andrew Miller. Though he struggled some with his control in college, his stuff and general results were excellent, and the Red Sox, already with one of the better minor league systems on the strength of that 2005 class, could afford a higher-risk guy like Bard. Bard also interviewed quite well, a bright guy and a real student of the game.

Because he pitched in the College World Series, the Sox decided not to have Bard pitch in 2006, instead waiting until 2007 to debut him at High-A Lancaster. In hindsight, the high-powered offensive environment of Lancaster might have been a poor fit for a guy like Bard to begin his career. He made five starts, pitching only 13.1 innings, compiling a 10.12 ERA, walking 22 batters and striking out 9. (That is not a misprint - he struck out less than half as many people as he walked). Bard was so bad that the Red Sox have not, to my knowledge, debuted a pitcher in High-A since then, even though they have long since left Lancaster for Salem, NC. He was placed on the disabled list at the beginning of May, and essentially given a month off to get his head straight before beginning June in Greenville. His results were little better: Bard made 17 starts, pitching only 61.2 innings with a 6.42 ERA, walking 56 and striking out 38.

The Red Sox converted him to a reliever and sent him to the Hawaii Winter League. He immediately turned things around, winning his Winter League's player of the year honor, then tearing through the minors. In 57 games at Greenville, Portland and Pawtucket from April 2008 through May 2009, Bard threw 93.2 innings, compiled a 1.44 ERA, allowed only 48 hits, walked 35 and struck out 136(!!!), earning a call-up to the majors, for good, on May 10. 

From then until the end of last year, he was a reliever, and generally an excellent one. He compiled a 2.88 ERA in 197.0 innings pitched, striking out 213, walking 76, and allowing 16 home runs - essentially spreading C.J Wilson's 2011 season over three years. Like just about every Boston pitcher, Bard ended 2011 poorly, but the common thought was that he would replace Jonathan Papelbon as the club's closer in 2012. Instead, Bard let the front office know that he was interested in trying to start, and the club, hoping to maximize his value, was inclined to give him that shot. (Seeing the difference between the contracts signed by Jonathan Papelbon and C.J. Wilson probably did little to deter Bard from believing that a move to the rotation was worth trying out).

So far in 2012, Bard's results have been uneven. Through nine games (eight starts) he has a 4.69 ERA in 48 innings. He's allowed 46 hits, and only 3 home runs, which are both encouraging numbers. On the other hand, he's walked 29 and struck out 28. A drop in strikeout rate is expected on some level, but usually the "rule of 17 applies" - strikeout rate usually drops about 17% in a move from the bullpen to the rotation - but Bard's has fallen off by over 40%. .Meanwhile, the increase in his walk rate goes back to the second half of last year. The confluence of the two has resulted in fears that even that mediocre 4.69 ERA is unsustainable - his FIP is 4.77, and his xFIP measures 5.22.

While those are numbers appear frustrating from someone who was a dominant reliever, they are quite impressive considering that he was never a successful starting pitcher in the minor leagues. Bard is still learning how to start, and patience is necessary. The difference between what starters and relievers get paid is appropriate - starters face three times as many batters, and when dominant can essentially win or lose games on their own. If Bard can be even a #3 starter, he'll be more valuable than the very good reliever he was.

The question then becomes whether Bard can get there while pitching in the major leagues. With options remaining, should Bard be getting his feel for starting down in Triple-A Pawtucket? In order to get a feel for cycling all his pitches while becoming comfortable with his mechanics as a starter, perhaps he needs to overmatch a few Triple-A hitters. If Bard is committed to the idea of being a stater long-term, would he be willing to sacrifice two to three months of service time in order to experience some sustained success as a starter?


Clay Buchholz is a much more difficult situation. Unlike Bard, Buchholz has obviously been a successful starting pitcher - not just as a professional, but in the major leagues. Everyone remembers his no-hitter in 2007, but his excellent 2010 season, where he had a 2.33 ERA and allowed only 9 home runs all year seems almost a mirage. He was solid last season, with a 3.48 ERA before being shut down for the season in June with a stress fracture in his back. Upon his return this year, something is quite obviously wrong - whether he isn't healthy, has lost his mechanics, or his confidence is shot, through 9 starts Buchholz has 7.84 ERA, worst among qualifiers in the major leagues. In 49.1 innings, he has allowed 67 hits, 11 of which have been home runs. He's walked 27 and struck out 27. His curveball has been flat, his fastball slow, a terrible combination.

Buchholz starts today against the Tampa Bay Rays, and another bad start will lead to some serious decisions. Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched very well yesterday in rehab start with Pawtucket, allowing only 1 hit and 1 walk in 5.0 innings. Ross Ohlendorf has a June 1 opt-out clause, and while he hasn't been fantastic with the PawSox, his 4.07 ERA and BB/9 rate under 2.5 look awfully inviting compared to Buchholz's struggles. Buchholz has not looked at all like a major league pitcher, and with an option remaining, woud he, like Bard, be a candidate for a demotion?

Unlike Bard, I think the decision here is more clear cut. Buchholz has been in this position before. After a terrible 2008 season, Buchholz began 2009 in the minor leagues. He worked closely with Rich Sauveur (the Pawtucket pitching coach) on rebuilding his delivery as well as his pregame preparation. If Sauveur can work his magic again, Buchholz and the Red Sox will both be better off. Unless he pitches well today, I would not be surprised to see the Boston front office send a pitcher - who only two years ago finished sixth for the Cy Young Award - back to the minor leagues.

Tying the question back to player development - is this a failure of the Red Sox? I don't believe so. While the Red Sox development of players is impressive, it hasn't been perfect - Craig Hansen was developed terribly, in one especially memorable example. Buchholz, though, doesn't resemble Hansen at all. In the case of Buchholz, in order to criticize the Red Sox, one would have to identify what they've done wrong. Specifically. Short of such evidence, the organization has earned the benefit of the doubt. Buchholz has proven to be a difficult guy to develop, and it's just as possible that another organization wouldn't have gotten nearly as much of a contribution as the Red Sox have from him.

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