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Debunking myths about Daniel Bard’s velocity

05.24.12 at 4:13 pm ET
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It is every pitcher’s least favorite topic when analyzing performance: a drop of velocity.

But Thursday morning, while attending an event to celebrate the launch of Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary commemorative album at the Hard Rock Cafe, Daniel Bard took some time to elaborate on one of the chief discussion points hovering around the Red Sox these days — the perceived disappearance of the pitcher’s calling card velocity.

For the season, Bard’s fastball is averaging 93 mph, four mph less than a year ago. But where the concern lies is the inability to amp his max velocity to even where it was at the beginning of the 2012 season, having maxed out at 94 mph Sunday afternoon in Baltimore.

So why is the case? Bard admits to be looking for answers. But in the meantime he offers some explanations, debunking some myths surrounding the topic:

THERE ARE TIMES HE IS ACTUALLY TRYING TO HIT 100 MPH

The perception is that while there an acceptance the velocity is going to drop while living the life of a starter, he should at least be able to revisit his flame-throwing glory days on occasion. So why hasn’t that been the case?

An example of when Bard was able to rear back and find that extra something came during the seventh inning of his May 8 start in Kansas City he fanned Brayan Pena on a 96 mph fastball, stranding runners on first and third while preserving a one-run lead. It was the last time the righty has touched 96 mph.

“That’€™s a good sign that it’€™s still there,” he said of the Pena at-bat. “But there is no reason I can’€™ t do that — and not necessarily sit at that velocity, but once an at-bat — there’€™s no reason I shouldn’€™t be able to reach back for it. That’€™s kind of what we’€™re trying to figure out, what I’€™m doing mechanically differently that’€™s not allowing me to get up there. I’€™ll reach back 5-10 a game, trying to max it out. I’€™m just fighting myself mechanically right now.”

IT’S NOT LIKE HE PHYSICALLY CAN’T DO IT ANYMORE

Go back to Bard’s first start of the season, on April 10 in Toronto, and you’ll find 11 pitches which he threw 96 mph or better. That appearance also marked the only time in ’12 he has touched 98 mph (on first-inning fastball to Jose Bautista).

In the seven subsequent starts, Bard has hit 96 mph a total of 11 times.

When looking for the answer to this drop-off, the first thing that should be explored is the pitcher’s health. That, Bard said, is not a problem.

“I’€™m not sure what the difference is, quite yet. I went through a period probably three or four starts in where I was getting pretty sore, pitching in that cold weather which always makes you a little more sore,” he explained. “But honestly my body has felt great for the last three or four starts. It’€™s not really an excuse anymore. The body feels good. The arm feels good. Now it’€™s just a matter of finding what works. But I feel better than I have all year.”

ARM SLOT HAS BECOME A MAJOR ISSUE

As Bard explains it, the angle in which he is throwing the baseball has offered a dilemma.

“From inning to inning, even as a reliever, you’€™re trying to find an arm slot you’€™re comfortable with,” he said. “Even if it’€™s not perfect in the long run, you can make it work for an inning. You can do that as a starter, too, but it’€™s harder to do that throughout a game which is why I’€™ve been battling to find a slot. I throw more strikes from a higher slot at 90 or 91, and then there’€™s a lower slot I throw harder at. That goal is the happy medium, where I can be 93 and 94 with good command. It’€™s happen at times this year it’€™s been either at 90 with good command, or 95 where no idea where it’€™s going.”

When Bard’s arm drops down, that’s when some of the wildness has made an appearance, with the pitches often times finding themselves sailing to the top of the strike zone. Of the 146 pitches he has thrown 94 mph or better this season, 53 percent have found the zone. In comparison, Washington’s Stephen Strasburg (who has thrown more 94 mph-or-better pitches than any pitcher in baseball), has hit the strike zone 57 percent of the time on his 233 96 mph-or-better offerings).

The Strasburg comparison is an interesting one due to the fact that he possesses the effortless delivery Bard has long been identified with, managing high velocity without altering mechanics. It’s a dynamic Bard is trying to rediscover.

“I’€™m trying to find that happy medium, I guess,” the Sox starter said.

RHYTHM MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH IT

The adjustments in going from reliever to starter have offered Bard a long list. But one important piece of the equation is figuring out how to bottle what went right and hold on to it for five days instead of just one.

“For me pitching is a lot about rhythm and having a consistent rhythm throughout your delivery,” Bard said. “The last few years with Gary Tuck we’€™ve used the beat system. Like from the stretch I’€™m three beats, and from the windup I’€™m four beats. You just want everything to be consistent and smooth. It’€™s just a matter of maintaining that. Sometimes it’€™s a little off and you have to fight through it, which seems to be the case the last couple of starts.

“When you find it as a reliever you feel it good one night and whatever those mental cues were that got you locked in that night you can use them again in two nights and everything kind of carries through. You try and simulate that with side sessions, but it’€™s just not the same. There’€™s a lot more time to think, more time to analyze everything. It’€™s not the same and that’€™s what I’€™m learning. Trying to find that consistency from outing to outing ‘€“ the physical aspects and the mental aspects.”

WHEN LOWER VELOCITY CAN ACTUALLY WORK

On Bard’s 131 pitches between 90-92 mph, hitters are totaling a .250 batting average. Conversely, from 93 mph and up the average escalates to .276. Not a huge difference, but proof that he can get hitters out with good command and movement.

A big part of making the lower velocity fastball work so well is offering the hitter a more difficult look. As Bard explained it, the key is extension. It isn’t dissimilar to what made Jonathan Papelbon’s fastball appear to jump the last five feet for much of his Red Sox career.

“If I get good extension out front I could hit 91 but get a swing that looks like it’€™s 97,” Bard said. “A 91 mph fastball thrown from the ear, short-armed, with no extension is a lot easier to hit than one with extension that’€™s coming at you.”

It’s all part of the equation. Now it’s up to Bard to uncover the final answers.

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