Monday, May 11, 2009

Let's temper expectations for Bard -- and not panic if he struggles

We all know about the debut of Cla Meredith.

It wasn't that far off from the debut of Brad Lidge.

That should teach us a little bit about how to react to the first few weeks of the major-league career of Daniel Bard -- no matter what the outcome.

Meredith allowed zero runs in his first 15 innings at Double-A Portland in 2005. He was tearing the league to shreds. He was called up in early May and made his major league debut in the seventh inning of a tie game with a runner in scoring position.

He walked the first batter he faced. He walked the second batter he faced. He gave up a grand slam to the third batter he faced. The very next day, he allowed two earned runs on two hits and two walks in one inning -- and his ERA still dropped by more than 40 points.

By the end of the week, he'd allowed seven earned runs in 2 1/3 innings. He then pitched the rest of the season in Triple-A and allowed 30 runs in 48 1/3 innings -- good for a 5.59 ERA. Just shy of a year after his major-league debut, the Red Sox shipped him to San Diego in the Josh Bard-Doug Mirabelli trade.

That disaster was front and center in the minds of Red Sox fans and Red Sox executives alike this weekend when the announcement was made that Bard was on his way to Fenway Park.

Bard, a first-round pick who flamed out as a starter, pitched sensationally in spring training and proceeded to put together the following line in 11 appearances at Triple-A Pawtucket: 16 IP, 2 ER, 29 K, 5 BB. He was untouchable. (Really: He was untouchable.) His fastball touched triple digits. His breaking balls were sharp. His confidence was overflowing.

But the Red Sox don't need him to put together a line like that in his first month or two in the major leagues. All they really need is for Bard not to become Cla Meredith. The rest will take care of itself.

He might pitch great. He might get lit up. As long as his confidence remains intact, it really doesn't matter -- and history bears that out.

If he's going to be a lights-out relief pitcher, let's compare him to lights-out relief pitchers. Here, then, is a look at the big-league debuts of each of the closers who had at least 35 saves last season -- and a look at why we shouldn't rush to judgment after the first time we see Bard pitch:
* Brad Lidge, Phillies
6 appearances, 6.23 ERA, 12 K, 6 BB, 0 saves in 2002
* Joe Nathan, Twins
19 appearances (14 starts), 4.18 ERA, 54 K, 46 BB, 1 save in 1999
* Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
17 appearances (3 starts), 2.65 ERA, 34 K, 17 BB, 0 saves in 2005
* Mariano Rivera, Yankees
19 appearances (10 starts), 5.51 ERA, 51 K, 30 BB, 0 saves in 1995
* Francisco Rodriguez, Angels
5 appearances, 0.00 ERA, 13 K, 2 BB, 0 saves in 2002
* Joakim Soria, Royals
62 appearances, 2.48 ERA, 75 K, 19 BB, 17 saves in 2007
* Jose Valverde, Astros
54 appearances, 2.15 ERA, 71 K, 26 BB, 10 saves in 2003
* Brian Wilson, Giants
31 appearances, 5.40 ERA, 23 K, 21 BB, 1 save

K-Rod, as you can see, was the only one who came close to lighting the world on fire -- after his abbreviated regular-season stint, he allowed four earned runs in 18 2/3 postseason innings (1.92 ERA) during the Angels' run to the World Series. He then had a 3.03 ERA in 59 appearances in 2003, his first full season.

Soria likewise had a smooth start and -- until an elbow injury put him on the shelf the spring -- has maintained a certain level of success. But while Valverde pitched great as a 23-year-old rookie, he had a 4.25 ERA in his sophomore season and a 5.84 ERA two years after that; he eventually was traded to Houston and has a 5.62 ERA with the Astros this season.

All of the others, though, struggled out of the gate.

Lidge made his debut in mop-up duty in 2002 in a game his Astros eventually lost to the Braves by a 9-0 score; he worked through trouble in his first inning of work but gave up a two-run double to B.J. Surhoff in his second. He allowed two more runs a week later in yet another blowout, this time at the hands of the Mets. He then was dispatched back to the minor leagues.

Rivera began his big-league career as a starter in May of 1995 and was shelled by the California Angels. In his first career relief appearance three months later, he blew a lead he'd inherited from Andy Pettitte when he walked back-to-back hitters and surrendered a double to Dave Nilsson. An inning later, the legendary David Hulse hit an inside-the-park home run.

When Wilson -- a Londonderry, N.H., native -- made his debut with the Giants, he actually made it through his first couple of outings without much trouble. He even pitched two scoreless innings in a one-run game against the Rockies. But he opened his fourth career outing by hitting the Marlins' leadoff hitter and walking the next hitter; two batters later, Dan Uggla hit a two-run single to put the game out of reach.

Young pitchers occasionally have trouble getting acclimated to the big leagues. For Meredith, it turned out to be disastrous. For Papelbon, it turned out to be OK.

The best thing Bard has going for him, though, is that the Red Sox have made the Meredith mistake already. If Bard has a rough go of things -- as long as he has the stuff -- he ought to be OK.

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