You truly do not know what you had until you have lost it. Just ask the Boston Red Sox.
They allowed their closer Jonathan Papelbon to enter free agency and sign with the Philadelphia Phillies before this baseball season.
Papelbon seemed like the perfect player to blame after the Red Sox’s collapse in September last year. He blew the save against the Baltimore Orioles, ending Boston’s season.
Apparently, the Red Sox’s management liked Daniel Bard, the young flame-throwing right-hander who played the set-up role in the bullpen in 2011, better than Papelbon.
Never mind Papelbon’s 31 saves in 2011. Disregard his 219 saves and 2.33 earned run average during his career with the Red Sox. Overlook his 4.43 strikeout-to-walk ratio. All of these statistics, recorded on baseball-reference.com, must not have impressed the Red Sox enough to keep him.
Even though Bard is now a starter, he was a reliever in his previous years with the team. During that time, he had an ERA of 2.88 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.80, both worse than Papelbon. He also posted a 5-13 record as a reliever, compared to Papelbon’s 23-19 record with the Red Sox, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Then why did the Red Sox let Papelbon go? Perhaps they did not want to pay Papelbon $50 million throughout four years, which the Phillies chose to do. Bard’s one-year contract worth $1.61 million, certainly saves money.
Boston spent big money to sign Carl Crawford though, so high salaries do not seem to scare the Red Sox’s ownership.
Maybe the Red Sox feel more attached to Bard because they drafted him in the first round in the 2006 amateur draft. They drafted Papelbon in the fourth round in the 2003 amateur draft, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The idea of a first-round pick failing to pan out might frighten Boston ownership.
Wins should represent a pitcher’s value though, not the round in which a pitcher was selected.
One can always speculate about the reasons for the team’s decision. It still does not fully explain the problem created by keeping Bard instead of Papelbon.
The Red Sox had to shuffle their bullpen after making Bard a starter. They currently close games by committee. One night, they might use a long reliever who has momentum. Another night, they might use a middle reliever who usually pitches one or two innings. Either way, the Red Sox lack a true closer.
Starters traditionally pitch five innings or longer. If hitters figured Bard out when he came out of the bullpen for one inning, just imagine the horror of that one inning lasting for half a game.
Bard will need to pace himself by throwing his fastball slower than normal. Relievers can throw harder for an inning or two to overpower hitters. Starters need to sacrifice speed for location. He must use his intellect to balance the pitches he throws to hitters over the course of the game.
In fact, part of Bard’s problems in the bullpen stemmed from his inability to locate his fastball, which can reach 100 mph. It does not matter how fast a pitcher throws if he leaves the ball up in the zone. Professional hitters adjust to the velocity and punish pitchers for elevating their pitches.
Mariano Rivera, the legendary closer of the New York Yankees, has illustrated the importance of location throughout his entire career. Most of his pitches, if not all, in a game are cutters and yet hitters have minimal success against him. They know what Rivera is going to throw, so why do they struggle against him?
Rivera moves the ball in, out, up and down. He changes the speed of his cutter with different grips and finger pressure. This has become even more important as Rivera ages.
Bard’s powerful fastball and devastating slider can make even the best hitters look foolish when he locates and mixes up his pitches. He has even shown signs of improvement in his first two starts this season. He simply has not done so consistently.
The Red Sox may have appreciated Papelbon when he helped them win the 2007 World Series. However, the team has not won a championship since then. The pressure to win in Boston may have clouded the judgment of the team’s management.
Now the Red Sox certainly have an excuse to fear the scenario in which Bard gives up too many runs against the Phillies, giving Papelbon the opportunity to close the door on his former team and secure a win for his new one.
Red Sox fans, pray that does not happen in this year’s World Series.