Daniel Bard's new sidearm delivery has him excited about his chances of making it back to the major leagues with the Cardinals.
By Rob Rains
JUPITER, Fla. – Daniel Bard’s journey has brought him to the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium, surrounded by other minor-league pitchers in the Cardinals’ camp, all of whom are trying to get to where Bard once was - and where he wants to get again.
It’s been nearly four years since Bard last threw a pitch in the major leagues, a time that seems even longer ago considering all he has been through in the intervening years. Bard has lost count of how many times he has been released. He underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. He changed his delivery and had to relearn how to pitch.
Bard went through a couple of years where he didn’t throw a pitch that was recorded in a box score, but he has kept going, kept trying, kept working, for one simple reason – he isn’t ready to stop.
“Talk about frustrating,” Bard said. “There were days that it was there. There were too many days mixed in where it wasn’t there, but I just thought if we could weed those out and limit it to the days it was there, it’s really good. I could get back to where I want to be.
“I definitely got the vibe even from people that I love and care about, like, ‘If you want to give it up we won’t judge you,’ that kind of thing. I don’t blame them. I had nothing to show for several years in a row, and it probably looked a little irrational at times.
“I’ve had many days where I thought not that it was necessarily the last day, but maybe the last week or the last season. You never know if the next job offer is going to come. My belief in my ability is still there. I’ve seen enough glimpses of it.”
It’s those glimpses, the days when he remembers what it was like to be a dominant reliever with the Red Sox, that keeps Bard pushing forward. He knows what a major-league quality pitch looks like. He knows it the moment the ball leaves his right hand.
“It’s not just about velocity or being able to hit a certain spot, it’s a combination of all those things,” he said. “For me it’s the feel or how it comes out. I can let a pitch go with my eyes closed and tell you whether or not it was a major-league quality pitch at this point. I am feeling it now more than ever.”
For a couple of seasons, in 2010 and 2011, before he suddenly could not throw strikes anymore, Bard was one of the most dominant relievers in the majors. He pitched in a combined 143 games in those two years with the Red Sox and compiled a 2.62 ERA, usually coming into a game in a high leverage situation.
His downfall began in 2012, when the Red Sox tried to convert their former first-round draft pick from North Carolina into a starter. The move didn’t work, and after a particularly rough game, giving up five runs in 1 2/3 innings on June 3 at Toronto, Bard found himself heading back to the minor leagues.
“Unfortunately it’s easy to say today because of the way things worked out, but it was probably the wrong thing to do,” said Randy Niemann, the pitching coach of the Red Sox that year and now working in that capacity for the Cardinals’ Class A Palm Beach team.
Bard doesn’t believe the change in his role was the complete cause for his struggles. He already was experiencing a drop-off in 2011 - he just didn’t know why.
“I already think the injury was affecting me in 2011 and would have caught up to me at some point anyway,” he said. “My spin rate dropped that year, even though I didn’t change anything mechanically. My fastball spin rate went from above average to below average.
“I was still having success, but there were some signs that it was affecting me. I just didn’t see it then, but I see it now.”
Bard had a couple of brief return trips to the Red Sox, believing at times he was OK again, but that feeling didn’t last. His last pitch in the majors was on April 27, 2013, when he walked the only two batters he faced in a game against the Astros.
He was placed on waivers that September and claimed by the Cubs, beginning a nomad existence that has seen him go from one farm system to another – from the Cubs, to the Rangers, back to the Cubs again and finally the Pirates, where he thought last spring – after fully recovering from the 2014 surgery - that he was almost all the way back.
He was wrong.
“I got in four of five big league games in spring training and thought I did well in all but one of them,” Bard said. “I was all set to go to Indianapolis in Triple A but I had a couple of very rough outings at the end of minor league camp and ended up staying in extended spring. They released me about a month later.”
Bard wondered, for maybe the 100th time, if this was the time to move on, to find something else to do with his life. It was his wife, Adair, who came to his aid.
“My wife constantly believed in me, even on the bad days,” Bard said. “I was like, ‘I can’t do it, I still don’t feel right,’ and she will go, ‘Are you serious? You talked for the last month about how good you feel and then you come in one day and don’t feel well and you say that?’ She talked me off the ledge per se. When you have the emotional building of feeling so good for so long, and think you are over the hump, then have a letdown, it’s tough.
“I know how demoralizing a feeling it is to have something you were great at, and all of a sudden you can’t do it. I know the feeling.”
Bard knows it has happened to others in baseball history – Steve Blass, the Cardinals’ Rick Ankiel and more. Bard knows the stories. He knows they never came back, at least as a pitcher, making the decision he never has wanted to make.
“If you’re not (mentally) strong, it will make you that way quickly or you’re going to walk away,” he said. “In one way the easy thing to do is keep doing it, because it’s what I know. The hard part is to keep going out there when you feel like you don’t have it. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t want to go out there and embarrass yourself again.
“You just have to chalk it up to, ‘I know who I am, I know how hard I’ve worked and I’m going to compete the best I can on the field and whatever happens happens.’ Ultimately it’s not about me getting embarrassed or looking great on the field, it really doesn’t matter. I’ve got different reasons I do it for, and I just want to compete and know down deep I gave it everything I had.
“One thing I’ve learned is that God’s timing is a little different than ours.”
Bard wondered about God’s timing last May, following his released by the Pirates. A couple of teams called, “but it wasn’t like they were lining up. I thought I had run the course of organizations that would give me a shot.”
It was an old connection, however, that led him to get another chance, this time with the Cardinals.
Bard’s Cardinal Connection
Mike Shildt was managing the Cardinals’ Triple A team in Memphis last year and is now the major-league quality control coach. More important to Bard was the fact Shildt had been Bard’s summer coach for nearly three years when he was in high school in Charlotte. Bard was receiving lessons in a baseball training academy Shildt was running at the time.
“He got the wheels going that got me over here,” Bard said.
Shildt has known Bard and his family since Bard was 15 years old, before he became the 28th overall pick in the country in the 2006 draft. If Bard wanted to keep fighting, Shildt wanted to help him get that chance.
“I’ve always believed in him and seen him grow into the talent he’s become,” Shildt said. “I know what he’s capable of. His agent, Mike Milchin, reached out to me and I just passed along his information. The guys took it from there.”
Bard was sent to Palm Beach, where he found another old friend, Niemann, waiting for him. That provided Bard with an instant comfort level he had been lacking. Even though Bard was not ready to pitch in games, he joined the team, made up mostly of players still in the early stages of their pro careers.
“Some of these guys were 10 or 11 years younger than me,” said Bard, now 31. “I was older than two of the coaches, and that’s never happened before.”
Bard had been with the team for a couple of weeks when he was asked to talk about his journey while on a road trip to Tampa.
“I had gotten to know most of the guys pretty well, but at the same time my situation was unique,” Bard said. “It was not normal for a former big league guy, 31 years old, to be hanging out there throwing bullpens and live batting practice with a high Class A team. It didn’t make sense, even to people who had been around the game a long time.
“They all had questions. ‘We know he was good, but what really happened? Why is he here? Is he just messing around or does he really think he can get back?’ I talked for a while and they asked questions. I tried to be as honest as possible.
“I told them there were going to be ups and downs, some really high highs and some really low lows in this game. I spent most of the time talking about how it is off the field.”
Niemann watched the session, knowing Bard’s story far better than anybody else in the room. He had lived part of it with him.
“He really spoke quite eloquently about his journey,” Niemann said. “It was good for him, and it was great for the kids. It was a great lesson.”
Niemann spent a couple of months working with Bard, tinkering with his delivery, trying to find something which clicked.
“In the beginning he had some issues that were absolutely keeping him from being able to execute pitches like he knows he can and used to,” Niemann said. “We were able to fix those and changed his arm angle more. I think it’s probably going to be good for him.”
The Cardinals suggested that Bard consider dropping his arm and becoming more of a sidearm pitcher. Bard said it was something he had done before, but not on a consistent basis. He agreed to give it a shot, but admitted he did not buy in all the way at the time.
On Aug. 12, he made his first appearance in an official game in more than two years. He walked two and hit a batter while recording two outs. He threw 17 pitches, only five for strikes. A couple of more rocky outings followed, including one where he threw 10 pitches and only one was a strike.
“They kept running me out there every two or three days when the results were not good and I thought, ‘They’re going to release me because the results stink right now,’” Bard said. “But they saw enough to keep running me out there and that was exactly what I needed.”
What Bard also needed was a heart-to-heart meeting with Niemann about his commitment to the sidearm delivery.
“It looked like that was his best avenue to getting back in the strike zone,” Niemann said. “The stuff was always there, it was a matter of getting it back where he could execute major-league pitches.”
Niemann asked Bard if was set on staying with the sidearm delivery, knowing at the time he was going back and forth from the new arm angle to the old.
“I said I was about 50-50,” Bard admitted. “I said if I’m only 50-50 I would rather do it the way I know got me to the big leagues the first time. And then he said something that resonated with me.”
It was a message about one way the game has changed. When Bard was having success in Boston, he was one of a very few relievers who came in games throwing 95 miles an hour or more with a hard slider. Now, Niemann told him, there are probably two or three such relievers on every team.
“I said, ‘You’re just like everybody else that comes in games these days,’” Niemann told Bard. “But if you drop down and throw 96, I can’t think of anybody who has that kind of velocity. ... We made him talk about what he was feeling. You have to face it. If you keep trying to sweep it under the rug it’s not going to get better.
“In all honestly I sat there last year and wondered if this really was going to work. I can’t tell you now that it’s going to work. It’s all up to Daniel. But at least the progress that I see and where he is compared to where he was last summer is so good that you sit there and go, ‘It can work.’”
Bard made the decision to commit to throwing sidearm 100 percent of the time. He went home for the winter and dedicated his workouts toward mastering the mechanics of his new delivery.
“This was the first time I’ve tilted the torso which to me is kind of saying, ‘I’m a side-armer,’” Bard said. “If I had dropped velocity and was throwing 86 from there, I don’t think I would be as committed to it. But I can still run it up there 93 to 95 and that gets me excited, because I know hitters don’t see that very often.
“It’s freed up mentally, or whatever you want to call it. My arm feels loose, the ball comes out with a lot of movement. I feel confident attacking the zone with the fastball. I’m not trying to be too fine and hit the corners, just let the movement of the pitch and velocity and the different angle kind of do the work.”
The Cardinals are excited too because of what they have already seen from Bard in the early workouts this spring. There is a belief that they could have found somebody who might have an impact on the major-league level at some point this season.
“The games will tell,” Niemann said. “But in the bullpens he’s thrown so far, of his 25 to 30 pitches, plenty of them were of major-league quality.”
As he watches from the side, Niemann is quietly rooting inside.
“This is Daniel’s journey,” Niemann said. “I can’t even begin to express how hard he’s worked and all the things he’s gone through. I appreciate his effort on a daily basis. He really wants to make this thing go and he’s put a lot of time and effort into it. I’m very proud of how far he has come. We’ll see how it ends up.
“The easy thing to do is quit. He’s got a wonderful family, and it would be easy to move on. He doesn’t feel like he’s through. He’s got the motivation to give it his best shot. … It’s hard to say you root for one guy more than another, but I would love for it to happen.”
Shildt wants to see that as well.
“It would be a tremendous story,” Shildt said. “I’m pulling like crazy for him. I was there at an early stage. Daniel bloomed fast. He was still putting it together, and he went from being a guy who enjoyed the game to becoming one of the best prospects in the game. I was part of that, saw how he handled it, and couldn’t be prouder of him. That’s the kind of young man he was.”
Bard’s motivation to make it back to the majors, the primary reason why he is still pitching, is his 15-month-old son.
“I would love for him to have memories of me playing,” Bard said. “For him to grow up and remember seeing his dad pitch in the big leagues, I think that would be really cool.”
Bard’s goal, however, is not just to get back to the major leagues, it’s to get there and stay until the time does come when he ready to stop. He believes he did appreciate being a major–leaguer the first time he was there and never took it for granted, but getting there again, after all he has been through, would be a totally different feeling.
“At times throwing a baseball was not fun for a couple of years,” Bard said. “I would go a whole season and maybe watch a handful of innings of games on television. Over the past year throwing a baseball has gotten more fun again. It’s made watching the games fun again.
“Instead of watching and saying, ‘Man, I used to be able to do that,’ now I say, ‘I can do that every day.’ That’s what I feel I can do. … I know the stuff I am throwing up there now is going to be good enough to be pretty effective against hitters at any level. It’s just a matter of time.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains