Daniel Bard‘s success as a starter could very well prove to be the key to a 2012 playoff run for the Boston Red Sox.

Then again, he’s just as likely to be relegated back to bullpen duty.

But with two rotation spots up for grabs, all indications point towards the 26-year-old at least beginning the season in Bobby Valentine’s starting-five. As of this writing, Bard and fellow system-product Felix Doubront figure to fill the fourth and fifth spots, with 2011’s jack-of-all-trades Alfredo Aceves returning to the ‘pen.

Nothing’s official yet, but can they really send Bard back at this point? Assuming he has nailed down a starting role, what, if anything, has his performance in camp told us? 

Clearly, a lot of what happens in spring has to be chalked up to pitchers trying out new pitches, tinkering with arm slots, working out the kinks in their mechanics, etc. So the spirit of this exercise is certainly not to over-analyze stat after stat.

But a few things come to mind as we stare down the barrels of Opening Day.

First, the knock on Bard coming out of his role as a (generally) lights-out reliever was that he relied on just two pitches (a four-seam fastball and his bread-and-butter slider). He would have to redevelop and mix in an effective change to avoid tiring himself out while keeping hitters off-balance in order to be successful.

He’s now mixed in a two-seam fastball, a pitch he used frequently while at the University of North Carolina. Earlier this March, he told WEEI.com’s Alex Speier:

It’s a pitch I’m very comfortable with, going back to when I was in college. I probably threw more two-seamers than four-seamers this spring so far. I’ve been real consistent with the movement.


Okay, check. He’s got a second fastball down. But what about that changeup?

It seems as if he’s still struggling with it. In an interview earlier this month, broadcast on WEEI, the team’s flagship radio station, he stated (via The Boston Globe‘s Peter Abraham):

Fastball, slider – that’s where I’ve made my money the last three years…If I’m not 100 percent confident in those two pitches going into the season, then something is not right.

It doesn’t matter what my changeup is if my two best pitches aren’t fully ready. So I really went into this last [start] wanting to establish my fastball in the zone and use the slider as my put-away pitch.

In other words, it’s mission-not-accomplished at this point. Developing the changeup will be critical, as he can’t rely on his above-average velocity an entire two or three revolutions through an opposing lineup, like he did in his role as a setup ace.

But it’s not all bad news. He seems to be getting craftier with his slider. Sox shortstop Mike Aviles told Abraham:

He’s throwing his fastball 96 and he has two sliders from what I can see. He has one with a little bend in it and one that’s really tight.

With the second one, when he throws it a little harder, you have zero chance on that. It’s kind of like having an extra pitch. That’s some really good stuff.

While the news about Bard’s slider is definitely encouraging, I’m not sure it balances out his lack of changeup. Time will tell.

So, how has all of this pitch-selection juggling translated into his spring stats?

A 6.57 ERA over 24.2 innings pitched (the most on the team). Apparently those who claim “he can’t be worse than John Lackey was in 2011″ are wrong.

Okay, so that isn’t entirely fair. Earned run average is a skewed stat which means even less in spring training. According to FanGraphs‘ Mike Podhorzer and Matt Swartz’s evaluation of spring training numbers:

-Spring K% and BB% actually do mean something and may help identify breakout and bust performers for the upcoming season
-Good and bad springs carry the same level of significance and they should therefore be treated equally
-Spring ERA is completely useless

So, good news on the ERA. But we knew that already.

The bad news is, his peripherals are hurting as well. His strikeouts-per-nine are down to 6.57 from 9.1 last year, while his walks-per-nine are up to 5.84 (from 3.0). The drop in strikeouts can probably be explained as due to his dialing back his effort in order to last longer. Fine.

But his strikeout and walk percentages? The stats that may actually be a legitimate predictor of regular season performances? God-awful. His walk percentage has jumped from 8.3 percent in 2011 to 14.5 this spring, while his strikeouts have gone from 25.7 to 16.4 percent.

Will any of this mean anything in the end? Maybe not. But the numbers aren’t very impressive this spring, and the lack of an effective changeup is daunting.

Here’s hoping he can put it together.

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