|Daniel Bard’s 2011 season reminiscent of Mariano Rivera’s 1996, could closing be next?||08.08.11 at 2:29 am ET|
Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard entered Sunday’s game against the Yankees in an unusual spot for him. The game had gone into extra innings, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona had called upon the usual setup man to pitch the all-important 10th, during which any one mistake could have handed Boston’s bitter rivals a win. Bard stepped to the mound against the Yankees’ heart of the lineup (4-6 hitters Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher) and consequently mowed down the fearsome threesome: Teixeira on a swinging strikeout, Cano on a groundout to second and Swisher looking at backdoor slider for strike three.
Moments later, Josh Reddick lined a hit to left field that scored Darnell McDonald. The home team had won 3-2, and Bard had pitched last for just the ninth time this season.
For the time being and at least into the foreseeable future, Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera will be the man that all major league closers are compared to, and for good reason (even if he did blow the save Sunday night that led to the Sox win). His 588 saves are the most among active pitchers and are just 13 behind all-time leader Trevor Hoffman for the all-time lead. At 886 games finished, he’s been on the mound in the final inning more than anyone in the history of baseball. His cutter may deserve its own wing in Cooperstown when the 41-year-old decides he doesn’t want to throw it anymore, although if his 1.87 ERA and 29 saves in 2011 are any indication, that time doesn’t appear to be coming anytime soon.
But as is the case with all closers, Rivera wasn’t always the Yankees’ go-to man in the ninth. In 1996 at the age of 26, he set up for then-closer John Wetteland, who led the American League with 43 saves that season and was the MVP of the 1996 World Series.
Flash-forward 15 years and the Red Sox find themselves in a similar situation to the ’96 Yankees in that they also have an elite closer and a 26-year-old setup man, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard.
The comparisons between Bard and the younger Rivera don’t just end with their roles and ages. Consider the stats of the two in their given years:
Rivera (1996): 61 G, 107.2 IP, 2.09 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.9 K/9, 3.82 K/BB, Longest scoreless streak: 25 innings (April 19-May 21)
Bard (2011): 52 G, 53.1 IP, 2.36 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 3.71 K/BB, Longest scoreless streak: 26 1/3 innings (May 27-June 31)
Rivera’s numbers in 1996 earned him a third-place showing in the AL Cy Young voting and a 12th-place finish in the MVP voting, unthinkable for any setup man in today’s game, because of his ability to eat innings (he averaged 1 2/3 innings per outing). Although Bard averages almost exactly one inning per appearance, the numbers between the two are at least comparable and even more so when you consider Bard had a 1.76 ERA before four earned runs in two outings last week raised it to its current level.
In 1997, Rivera became the Yankees closer as the team allowed Wetteland to leave as a free agent, and the rest can be read in the history and record books. (Wetteland later acknowledged he was “happy” to see Rivera take the closer’s role.) Bard and the Red Sox have a similar future coming up as Papelbon becomes eligible for free agency this offseason. Although he wouldn’t speculate about Papelbon’s future in Boston, Bard first joked about the goals for his future before correcting himself.
“I want to be in middle relief my entire life,” Bard deadpanned in an interview with WEEI.com before Sunday’s game. “No, I don’t think anybody goes into the bullpen without [closing] being an ultimate goal. Right now, I’m happy where I am, but that’s definitely where I want to be eventually in my career.”
After three strong years in the majors, during which he’s seen his WHIP drop each season, Bard can justifiably begin to think about a future as a closer. Fifteen years after his year as setup man — his first full season in the majors — Rivera admitted he wasn’t thinking that far ahead.
“I enjoyed the game,” he told WEEI.com earlier in the weekend. “The reason why I enjoyed it was because I was doing what I wanted to do: pitching, playing baseball. Didn’t matter what I was doing. It was a blessing that I ended up being the setup man. It didn’t start like that. Over the course of the year it changed, but I enjoyed it. Like I said, it was my first full year in the big leagues and I just wanted to pitch, regardless of what I was doing.”
A year later, Rivera was doing something new, closing, and doing it well. His ERA dropped to 1.88 and he registered 43 saves, the same amount as Wetteland before his departure. While the stats seem to point out that the transformation from setup man to closer was a seamless one for Rivera, the Yankees closer confirmed that sentiment a decade-and-a-half later.
“To me, it was the same thing,” he said. “The only difference is you aren’t going to have anybody behind you. Being the setup man, you always have the closer and someone behind you. That’s it.
“The mentality of the setup man and the closer, it should be the same.”
Independently of the man in the opposing bullpen, Bard, who worked as a closer for Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, confirmed the same switch between being the man in the eighth and the man in the ninth.
“The only difference is you don’t have anybody to clean up your mess, not that I try to leave a lot of messes or anything,” he said. “But as a closer, hopefully you don’t have or need anybody behind you to help with that stuff.”
But the question remains whether Bard could close out a ballgame at this very moment. Papelbon’s exit this offseason, or even an unexpected injury to the Sox closer down the stretch this season, would thrust Bard into that closing role. If called, he says he’d take on the job just like he would any other.
“God forbid anything like that ever happens this year, but if it did, I’m ready,” Bard said. “Nothing would change mentally. Just go out there and pitch as well as I have. Keep doing the things that I’m doing. That’s easier said than done, of course. But I could handle it.”
Sunday was just the latest proof of that, and Rivera, who said Bard has “a tremendous arm” and “has great stuff and goes through his pitches well,” indirectly had one piece of advice though for his fellow reliever should he ever become a closer and make a living out of finishing games.
Don’t touch anything.
“You can change mechanically, but then what you were doing before and what made you good, you’re no longer doing,” Rivera said. “You have to keep what you were doing.”
For the time being, Bard will have no other choice but to keep doing what he’s doing. Throwing his 97-98 mph fastball, dropping in a slider that breaks through the backdoor to fool hitters, and of course coming in for the eighth inning or whenever else he may be instructed.
The closing job isn’t quite yet his, as the Sox could decide they like the eighth-ninth combo of Bard and Papelbon and may re-sign Papelbon this offseason.
So until Bard can officially break that ninth-inning barrier like Rivera did in 1997, he’ll keep the comparisons to the best closer ever an arm’s length away.
“That’s obviously a legend of the game, and it feels good to be named with him but a little undeserved I think,” Bard said. “You know, Mo’s just one of the best there ever was, on and off. Nobody’s ever said a bad thing about the guy. I’ve obviously looked up to him since I was a kid, but I still have 15 years ahead of me before any of that talk.”
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