And that’s meant in a good way.
Derek Lowe saved 42 games for the Red Sox in 2000 and then struggled some the next year, losing his closer’s role in the process. The Red Sox opted to try him as a starter at the end of the season, and when he transitioned into that role fully in 2002, he nearly won a Cy Young Award. He finished 21-8 with a 2.58 ERA in 219 2/3 innings that season, and while he was never so good again, he’s been a quality starting pitcher for a decade now.
This isn’t the first time since that the Red Sox have tried to turn one of their most important relievers into a starting pitcher. They groomed Jonathan Papelbon as a starter in the spring of 2007, only to shift him back to the pen late in the spring. Now they want to try it again with Daniel Bard, a starting pitcher in college who only found success in the minors after being moved to the pen.
That’s the scary part about the transition. Bard was a complete bust after one year in the Boston system, going 3-7 with a 7.08 ERA and a 47/78 K/BB ratio in 75 innings in his 22 starts in 2007. The Red Sox moved him to the pen the next spring and he thrived right away. He debuted in the majors in 2009 and has a 2.88 ERA and a 213/76 K/BB ratio in 197 innings since.
But, really, there’s no reason to think he lost in 2007 because he was starting. He was a bust because his mechanics were terrible, and he also seemed intimidated by the crazy hitting environment at Lancaster, the toughest place to pitch in the minors.
Perhaps that doesn’t speak well of Bard’s mental toughness, but 2007 was five years ago now. He’s succeeded at the highest level of competition. Perhaps even more important, he’s a far more complete pitcher now than he was when he was drafted. His slider has turned into a very good second pitch, and his changeup has also come a long way, even though he doesn’t get to use it too much as a reliever.
Obviously, Bard isn’t Lowe. Lowe has always relied on a sinker to get outs. Bard is still going to try to overpower hitters, even though his velocity figures to decline from 96-99 mph as a reliever to 93-97 mph as a starter.
But Bard should be plenty good as a starting pitcher, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him make the same kind of impact C.J. Wilson did in Texas when he made the conversion two years ago. The Red Sox could always change their minds later and throw him back in the pen as a setup man or a closer. But if there’s ever a time to move him, this is it, and it would make sense to give him at least a few months to prove himself.