PITTSBURGH — He figures he may have listened too intently, followed orders to a T — perhaps the reason his Red Sox career took that U-turn to nowhere. Or maybe there were too many messengers with too many messages, well-intentioned advice that only scrambled his head, his focus, messed up his game.
Whatever happened to Daniel Bard, not long ago one of Major League Baseball’s most dominating late-inning forces, he is getting the chance to fix it now. Picked up by the Chicago Cubs when the Red Sox finally cut him free last month, he is feeling good once again. Strong. Not unlike, he says, how he felt in March with Boston — back to being “pretty close” to the pitcher he wanted to be, a far cry from the disaster of 2011.
But his gains were not quite enough. “I found out with two days left in spring training that [the Red Sox] were going to send me back to the minors to keep working on some stuff, and that was kind of tough to hear.”
So continued the de-evolution of Daniel Bard, 28, once a prized first-round draft pick with a 100-mile-an-hour fastball and devilish slider, a mesmerizing combination that American League hitters could barely touch for much of 2009, 2010, and 2011.
The genesis of Bard’s most recent struggles began with a mutual decision, on behalf of Bard and Sox management before the 2012 season, to turn one of the game’s premier setup men into a starting pitcher.
“It was a group idea. I was totally on board, and I don’t think it was a bad idea in itself,” he recalled. “I think what was not good about it was the way we did it.’’
Earnest, polite, eager to learn and to succeed, Bard believes much of what went wrong can be attributed to too much advice, his mechanics and overall game a victim of what he refers to as “tinkering’’ by a number of Red Sox coaches over the years and especially last year’s manager, Bobby Valentine.
At one point, Bard recalled, all that input left him trying “to pitch with 15 keys’’ to his delivery. The relatively simple act of pitching became lost in all the layering of advice, especially during his short-lived role as one of Boston’s five starters.
“The first day I showed up in spring training , they started tinkering,’’ Bard recalled. “It was, ‘OK, you’ve got to throw out of the windup.’ Well, I hadn’t done that in five years. Then it was, ‘You need to throw more changeups . . .’ I am fastball-slider, basically. I mean, the changeup is there, but it’s definitely my third pitch.
“So I am trying to change speeds on my fastball, stuff that really polished starters can do.’’
Stuff that Bard certainly wasn’t polished enough to execute, at least not consistently, not at crucial points in a game. The experiment in the starter’s role was brought to an end after 10 outings, his record a mediocre 4-6 and his ERA a hefty 5.30.
It also didn’t help Bard’s overall job trajectory that his previous September — with the infamous beer-and-chicken escapades as Boston’s playoff hopes were scuttled — was an outright disaster. In 11 appearances, a total of 11 innings, he yielded a whopping 13 earned runs. Earlier in the season, he posted 26⅓ consecutive scoreless innings — only to be lit up time and again when the Sox needed him most amid their crash-and-burn.
“I think if we had just said, ‘All right, you obviously know how to get big-league hitters out out of the bullpen, just do it for 5-6-7 innings and don’t change anything,’ I think I would have learned some things along the way,’’ said Bard.
“Before I knew it, I had tinkered with so many different things — my delivery, my repertoire, the way I was approaching hitters — that I had kind of lost my identity as a pitcher.’’
Tough call for GM
In Boston, the final call to cut ties with Bard on Sept. 1 was left to general manager Ben Cherington, who in 2006 was part of the Red Sox scouting department that was so pleased to pluck Bard with the number 28 pick in that year’s draft.
They liked everything about Bard, then a junior at the University of North Carolina. Cherington was impressed when he saw Bard fight through control issues his first season in pro ball as a starter, right himself as a reliever in year 2, then go on to dominate in those three seasons (2009-11) with the Sox, recording 79 holds and a 2.88 ERA.
Bard’s history of persevering, and a basketful of solid professional and personal attributes, Cherington acknowledged, made it hard to release Bard. But the Sox needed the roster spot to add outfielder/pinch runner Quintin Berry.
There is probably some truth, acknowledged Cherington, to Bard’s belief that he fell prey to information overload, that in all the nipping and tucking of his mechanics and delivery that he somehow lost his way.
“I know he’s a really great guy and very much into learning whatever he can,’’ said Cherington, noting that Bard’s reversal in fortune is cause for introspection throughout the organization.
“Those are great attributes that can lead to a successful, fulfilling life. It’s also true that those same attributes can make it more challenging as a baseball player. Sometimes it’s best just to keep things simple out there.’’
Bard didn’t pitch in his three-plus weeks in Cubs flannels. After he joined the team Sept. 4, he worked solely on the sideline under the watch of Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio. Bard and Bosio talked. They worked together in the bullpen. They reviewed videotape of his workout sessions, including one that Bard didn’t realize was taped.
“We hid one camera in the [bullpen] ivy and one in the door,’’ said Bosio, relishing the surreptitiousness of it all. “He said, ‘Hey, I never saw them.’ And I said that was the point.’’
Bosio also had a videotape assembled that captured many of Bard’s best performances with Boston during the 2010 season.
“One of the first things we did — made a positive-reinforcement tape,’’ said Bosio. “It was all good. How aggressive he was. The movement. The action. A series against New York. He felt good about himself.’’
Teacher and pupil both liked a lot of what they saw of the hidden-camera session. The 6-foot-4-inch Bard threw effortlessly, smoothly, his pitches on target and popping at 92-93 miles an hour.
“He really enjoyed watching it,’’ said Bosio, the ex-hurler who threw a no-hitter against the Red Sox for Seattle in 1993. “He’s feeling really good about himself. “Sometimes you’ve got to make these guys feel good about themselves for them to have some success. . . . but mind, feeling good, is huge.’’
A man who knows
Advice, and what to do with it, can be curative for a pitcher in need of regaining his game. It also can perpetuate the pain and futility.
“All the talk becomes clutter after a while,’’ said Steve Blass, the former Pirates righthander whose career ended in the mid-1970s after a protracted bout of inexplicable control issues. “I know that subject so very well.
“And you are listening for two reasons: first of all, to be polite; and second of all, something might click . . . and you get it back that quickly.’’
A rookie in 1964, Blass became a mainstay in the Pirates rotation through the ’60s and into the ’70s and went 19-8 in 1972 before his control issues arose.
With a career record of 100-67 to that point, he spent the next two years trying to recover his control.
It never happened. For nearly 40 years thereafter the affable Blass has been the game’s authoritative voice on able-bodied pitchers who inexplicably lose their stuff.
“Oh, I’ve had an 800 number for people to call me on this subject,’’ kidded Blass, now 71 and a fixture in the Pirates broadcast booth.
Bard’s control issues have not been as acute as those Blass experienced, but he too was plagued by walks and mystifying lack of control in his starting stint with Boston in 2012 and subsequent assignments in the minors.
Blass spent the ’73 and ’74 seasons, including a shift to the bullpen, trying to get it together with Pittsburgh. The mental anguish at times was excruciating.
“I remember sitting up in my backyard, 3 o’clock in the morning, tears coming out of my eyes because I wasn’t going to be a Pirate anymore,’’ Blass recalled. “It had been my life. Ever since I was 8 years old, all I ever wanted to do.
“And the frustration at that point was that I was only 32 years old. And that was the real frustration — that I thought I could pitch forever.’’
Over the nearly 40 years since, he never figured out what happened.
“I don’t know. But I tried everything. I tried hypnosis, transcendental meditation, visualization, psychologists . . . everything. Because I wanted to make sure that if it wasn’t there, I was convinced, so that I wouldn’t wonder later on.’’
‘Rooting hard for him’
According to Bard, the Cubs have told him this was not an end-of-season lark.
Bard said he has been assured the Cubs want to keep him.
That approach, in part, explained his extended busman’s holiday, working out and traveling with the club — carrying a guitar on road trips — without seeing action in a game.
“Theo just said, ‘Look, hey, we know what’s gone on the past year and it’s probably been frustrating for you. . .’ ’’ said Bard, referring to Theo Epstein, the former Red Sox general manager and the Cubs’ president of baseball operation. “We want to be in this for the long haul.’ To hear someone say that and to commit me to me was nice.’’
It was particularly difficult, said Cherington, to watch Bard struggle, “and I’ll be rooting hard for him because he is such a terrific guy.’’
Exactly what happened to Bard in Boston, said Cherington, is open to speculation.
“The bottom line is, we were not able to put him in a position to succeed after 2011,” acknowledged Cherington. “Because of that, we have to look at ourselves and ask why. I’m not sure we have the perfect answer to that.
The Cubs wrapped up their season Sunday in St. Louis.
Bard, with as much to prove as to rediscover, soon will head back home to Mississippi to be with his wife, Adair, and to prepare for next season.
He hopes his future is with the Cubs. Even more, he hopes it’s with the renewed version of his old self, as a closer.
“As a starter, you overanalyze — just too much time to overanalyze,’’ said Bard; as a reliever, it is far easier to move on from a bad outing.
Bard has moved on. New team. Old job. Results, good or bad, yet to be determined.
“I think the bullpen’s my home . . . ’’ he said. “It’s what suits me best and I think it’s where I’ll be the rest of my career.’’Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.