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How Daniel Bard became the 2020 NL Comeback Player of the Year

One of my earliest memories as a young baseball fan was watching Daniel Bard pitch. He was nothing short of electric. He worked his way into Boston’s set up role, and seemed poised to assume closing duties once star closer Jonathan Papelbon left in free agency, which he did to Philadelphia following the 2011 season. Up to this point, Bard had been fantastic out of the bullpen. Over the three years between his debut and Papelbon’s departure (2009-2011), Bard was among the best setup men in baseball. Among relievers with at least 180 innings during this time period, Bard ranked 14th in fWAR (3.4) and ERA (2.88), 10th in K/9 (9.73), 15th in FIP (3.22), and 11th in xFIP (3.24). Numbers like these made it pretty clear who was going to be closing games for the Red Sox in 2012: Daniel Bard.

But that didn’t happen. If it had, I doubt I would be writing this. The 2012 Red Sox rotation was terrible. Not a single player on the roster managed to both start 10 or more games and post an ERA+ at or above 100. Not one. Prior to the season’s start, Bard had expressed an interest in having a bigger role on the team. He wanted to either start or close, rather than continue as the setup man. The team was in discussions about which role to move him to when Papelbon signed with the Phillies, a departure that would have seemed to make that decision for the team. However, it didn’t. The new manager, Bobby Valentine, wanted Bard to start. General Manager Ben Cherington backed up his new skipper in this decision by trading for both Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey, who were both established as quality Major League relievers, just like Bard. The Red Sox had managed to find a new starter and replaced both back end pieces of their bullpen. What could go wrong?

Everything. Andrew Bailey posted a 7.04 ERA across just 15.1 innings. Melancon didn’t fare much better, with a 6.20 ERA over 45 innings. Bard was perhaps the biggest surprise, as he struggled to the tune of a 6.22 ERA in fewer than 60 innings, as he started just 10 games. His struggles lead to a demotion to Pawtucket on June 5th. He spent a few months in AAA, getting recalled on August 30th, but he did not improve upon his return. Between August and September he allowed opposing hitters to hit over .400 against him with an OPS north of 1.400.

That certainly wasn’t what the Red Sox had envisioned when they moved their bullpen-ace-to-be to the rotation, but surely his struggles couldn’t continue to be this severe, his stuff was too good. Well again, if that had been the case, I wouldn’t be writing this. Bard would make just 2 more appearances for Boston. His 2013 season started with an option to AA Portland, but he would be recalled within a month, on April 24.  The next day, Bard came in to start the 9th inning in a 7-2 ball game against Houston. Bard worked a quick inning, striking out one, and allowing zero runs on one hit. Two days later, still against Houston, Bard came out of the bullpen again. He didn’t record an out. He faced two men, walked both of them, and was lifted from the game. The Red Sox would go on to win the game, but Bard’s career was in question. On the 29th of that month, Bard would again be optioned off to AA Portland. He missed time over the summer due to an abdominal strain, and on September 1st, he was designated for assignment. 18 months prior, that would have been an unthinkable move. Now, it was reality. 

Bard was claimed by the Cubs, finished out the season in their minor leagues, and then elected free agency in December. He would sign a minor league deal with the Rangers. He spent 2014 in their minor league system before being released in June. He signed with the Cubs prior to the 2015 season, but wouldn’t crack their Major League roster. This same story continued to happen with the Pirates, Cardinals, and Mets. Bard would sign, pitch in the minors, struggle, and get released.

So what happened? Your first instinct might be injury; it was mine too. But Bard never spent too long on the IL. It was more apparent than that. Bard lost the strike zone. Let’s look at June of 2014. Bard was pitching for the Hickory Crawdads, the A-ball affiliate of the Rangers. Bard appeared in 4 games. He faced 18 batters and didn’t allow a hit. Instead, he walked 9 and hit 7 batters. He failed to record an out in 3 of 4 outings. He allowed 13 runs, good for a 175.50 ERA. For any cross-section of Bard’s career between 2013 and 2020, the numbers may change slightly, but the story that the numbers tell remains the same: Daniel Bard couldn’t throw a strike. 

All of this has been said simply to set up one of the greatest comeback stories in sports. Daniel Bard was named the National League Comeback Player of the Year. Bard did not experience the same hardships that previous recipients did, such as 2019 AL winner Carlos Carrasco, who battled back from a leukemia diagnosis; but it could be argued that in terms of what happens on the baseball field, nobody has been more deserving of the award before. Bard has a six-year gap in his Major League resume. He spent the 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 seasons toiling in the minors and independent baseball. Bard even retired on October 3rd, 2017, after which he was given a coaching role with Diamondbacks. But he still wanted to play. And he did, earning a spot in the Rockies’ bullpen. He pitched great, with a 3.65 ERA (145 ERA+), while striking out 27 to just 10 walks in 24.2 innings.

When Bard had last pitched in a Major League game, Mike Trout had fewer than 70 games played. When Bard made his return, Trout had played in about 1200 games, won 3 MVP awards, and already earned his plaque in Cooperstown. It cannot be overstated how improbable this comeback was. There were 2,646 days in between Major League pitches from Daniel Bard; 7 years, 2 months, 28 days.

Bard is now 35, and the future of his career is perhaps more uncertain than it ever was. Presumably, he should get opportunities to keep pitching until he can no longer do so effectively, but if there is anything we have learned from Bard’s career, it has to be that you cannot predict the next step of his career. His dramatic fall from greatness was out of nowhere, only to be outdone by an even bigger surprise: his career’s resurgence. Even if we cannot know what comes next, there is little doubt that I, along with most baseball fans I imagine, are rooting for him.

Matt O'Halloran

CS Student at UMass Lowell; Analytics for UML Baseball; Twitter: @matto20

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