Do me a favor and watch the video below from Bard’s 32nd save of the season in the final game of the Rockies’ Chicago road trip. In particular, focus on the first two pitches. Both of them are strikeouts looking on sliders over the outside corner.
Daniel Bard pitches a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts and notches his 32nd save of the season pic.twitter.com/X3Rz7Q8b0m— RoxGifsVids (@RoxGifsVids) September 18, 2022
Did you notice anything different? You probably did. Both pitches were classified as sliders, but one was a 84 MPH sweeper and the other was a sharper, almost cutter-ish 90 MPH pitch. Let’s talk about Daniel Bard’s incredible 2022 season, his slider, how he’s manipulating it, and why that is and likely will be a significant part of his success -both now and moving forward.
The Magical Season
I’ve written about Bard before this season, just prior to the All-Star break. At the time, his ERA was at 2.05, he had converted 16 of 18 save opportunities and lead all NL relievers in Win Probability Added (WPA) by virtue of having the highest Average Leverage Index (aLI) of them all. Over two months later, Bard’s ERA is down to 1.95. He has converted 32 saves in 35 tries, his WPA is second in all of baseball among relievers to Twins ace reliever Jhoan Durán and his aLI is third in MLB, behind only Cubs/Phillies closer David Robertson and Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano. He’s being put in a ton of high leverage spots, and he’s succeeding over and over again. His sinker has been fantastic (batters are hitting .191/.283/.277 against it), but his slider has been almost untouchable. MLB hitters are slashing .125/.234/.229 off of it, an absolutely miserable line, and get this: 63.1% of Bard’s sliders this season have resulted in what you’d call a positive result (shoutout to pitcherlist.com for the concept), those being called and swinging strikes, foul balls or an out in play.
Of course, his slider was also terrific in 2021, when his ERA was above 5. His fastball not getting hit has been the main difference (hitters slashed .355/.480/.521 off his two fastballs last season, and as a result he’s all but ditched the four-seam this year), but I believe that’s a direct consequence of something he’s doing with his breaking ball.
The Many Faces of a Major League Breaking Ball
There are lots of way to throw a breaking ball. Some have very consistent velocity and movement (think Kyle Freeland’s slider, for example), some are manipulated a lot into creating different shapes depending on context (Dinelson Lamet’s slider, a pitch I’ve written about not too long ago). As far as movement profile, some are vertical (leading to swings and misses, but possibly also harder contact) and some are horizontal (less whiffs, more soft contact). Some are extremely hard, some are softer, more loopy breaking balls. As a general rule, the hard breakers are good for drawing swings out of the zone, and the big, slow breakers are good for stealing called strikes early in counts. Movement is important, but there is also such a thing as too much movement, especially when paired with a pitch that moves in another direction. Justin Lawrence can be a great example of this at times, as his sinker and slider diverge so much (13+ MPH and over 30 inches of horizontal movement of difference on average) that batters can sometimes recognize them earlier during ball flight.
When you have two different pitches that are so different in terms of velocity and movement, they may not pair all that well with one another. What’s the solution for that if “scrapping a pitch” isn’t something you want to do? In general, there’s two ways to answer this question:
- Alter the movement profile (and/or velocity) of one or both of your offerings. For example, throw a harder, sharper, more vertical slider instead of a slower sweeper. The Dodgers signed Andrew Heaney (he of a 5.83 ERA in 2021) and he’s thrived in Dodger blue, mainly because he ditched his 79 MPH sweeping curveball in favor of a sharper and more vertical 83 MPH slider. His new slider has less raw movement than the old curveball, but it looks like a fastball for a lot longer and thus performs better. Less can definitely be more.
- Find a bridge pitch. If you have two pitches that are very far apart in terms of velo and shape, another way to fix that problem is to develop a third pitch that acts as a middle ground between the two. That third offering doesn’t even need to be a plus-plus pitch on its own in order to do its job, which is to make your other two pitches more difficult to identify as they leave your hand and head towards home plate. This is a big part of the reason why cutters are gaining popularity: they’re a logical and ideal way to bridge the gap between a fastball and the new kind of sweeping breaking ball that’s taking baseball by storm these days. The cutter is slower than the fastball, but harder than the slider. It has vertical and horizontal movement, but a lot less than the slider. In short, it gives the batter less of a chance to identify what’s coming. This is the route we’re going to talk about, because it’s the route that Bard himself took.
Bard’s Multi-Faceted Slider
First, a disclaimer: pitch tracking systems don’t think Bard’s added a new pitch this season. If you go on Baseball Savant, you’ll still see just a slider (as well as a sinker-four seam-changeup). However, Bard is manipulating that slider and doing something interesting with it. This chart below represents the velocity of every slider Bard threw in 2021:
Now, the same chart but for 2022...
I’m sure you noticed the change. Except for one stretch late in the year, in 2021 Bard’s slider was very consistently within the same 3-4 MPH range. This year, however? Not only is he throwing the slider harder as a whole (88.3 MPH, compred to 87.1 MPH in ‘21), his velocity and thus shape on that pitch is a lot more varied, with far more deviations to both above 90 MPH and below 85 MPH. This makes it a chameleon pitch, giving the batter a lot more to think about. His slower sliders, such as the first one in the video from the very opening of this piece, are big, sweeping breaking balls very similar to last year’s slider. But it’s the harder sliders that really interest me.
The New Cutter
When I say “hard slider”, I’m talking sliders at 90+ MPH (such as the second slider from the video at the top of the page). Last season, Bard threw 561 sliders, of which 35 of them (6.2%) were thrown at or above 90 MPH. This season, Bard has thrown 374 sliders, of which 98 have been thrown at or above 90 MPH. That’s 26.2%, over a quarter of all his sliders, thrown like cutters at an average velo of 91.1 MPH. Has it worked? You bet it has. Batters are hitting .083 with zero extra-base hits and a 44% strikeout rate against Bard’s “slider” when it’s 90+ MPH, with expected stats right in line with the results.
Something else that’s interesting: if we remove the 90+ MPH cutters from this season, his average slider velo in 2022 is 87.4 MPH. His average slider velo last season? 87.1 MPH. So the 2022 pitch mix is not 54.1% sinkers and 42.2% sliders. It’s more like 54.1% sinkers (98 MPH), 31.2% sliders (87.4 MPH) and 11% cutters (91.1 MPH). That cutter probably looks more like a sinker out of his hand than the slider, and the way it bridges the gap between his two main offerings is likely playing a big part in all the weak contact he’s getting this season.
It’s difficult to bet on any reliever to be consistently great due to the nature of the role, but this change Bard has made greatly improves the coherence of his arsenal and gives him a clear avenue towards sustainable success. Bard isn’t just a great story of perseverance, and he likely won’t be a one-year wonder either in the second phase of his MLB career. His arsenal is filthy and coherent, he has the experience and the moxie to deal with pressure. Put in simple terms, he’s one of the best relievers in baseball, and watching him shut down late innings is a joy. It’s been a long road for Daniel Bard, but he’s pitching as well as he ever has, perhaps better than ever, and that new cutter will ensure he has a great shot to keep doing that.
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My excitement over Tovar’s meteoric rise is well documented. After slashing .318/.386/.545 against pitchers three to five years older than him in Double-A, Tovar was sidelined for 11 weeks with hip and groin issues. He recently returned to the field, heading to Triple-A Albuquerque right away. He’s 5-for-14 with a homer and two RBI so far in three games. I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that Tovar will make his MLB debut before the 2022 season ends.
From watching a good amount of his plate appearances, I’d say the quality of his process has improved, but the results have been quite similar. There’s still a bit of room for improvement, even if he’s a good player already.
On The Farm
The Isotopes (59-81) held a late-inning lead in this one following six innings of one-run ball from starter Ty Blach, who held Sugar Land to just five hits and a walk despite not striking out a single batter, but lost the lead after the Space Cowboys rallied in the bottom of the 8th to score a pair of runs that would eventually win the game. The big difference in this one came with runners in scoring position -Albuquerque went 0-for-5, Sugar Land went 3-for-7. Among the batters for the Isotopes: Ezequiel Tovar (Nº 1 PuRP) went 0-for-3, but he walked twice and scored one of the club’s two runs when Carlos Pérez (2-for-4 with a walk) doubled him home in the 1st. Ryan Vilade (Nº 24 PuRP) walked twice as well and hit a solo homer in the 4th to give ABQ a lead, and Brenton Doyle (Nº 25 PuRP) went 1-for-3 with a walk in his Triple-A debut.
Double-A: Hartford Yard Goats. Final record: 77-60.
High-A: Spokane Indians. Final record: 64-66.
The Grizzlies entered this game needing a win to force a decisive Game 3 in the California League championship series, and while they pitched much better than they did in Game 1, the bats were held in check once again. Fresno started Gabriel Hughes (Nº 7 PuRP), who did strike out five against just one walk, but ultimately allowed two runs (3.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 5 K, 0 HR) and wasn’t stretched out past 60 pitches, leaving on the hook for a loss he’d eventually take. It fell on the bullpen to keep things right there and they did a terrific job, allowing just one unearned run across the next six innings. Gabriel Barbosa in particular was fantastic, pitching four spotless innings in relief of Hughes aside from that lone unearned run (which came after a passed ball), striking out three and walking none. As I mentioned, the bats got shut down for the most part. The bottom of the 1st was ominous for Fresno: after hitting an single to lead off, Adael Amador (Nº 4 PuRP) advanced to second on a wild pitch... only to get picked off immediately after that. Storm pitcher Víctor Lizarraga then settled in, first retiring six Grizzlies in a row after the pickoff, then shutting down a bases loaded, one out threat in the 3rd by getting Benny Montgomery (Nº 6 PuRP) to ground into an inning-ending double play. Lizarraga kept rolling until the 7th, when Juan Brito (Nº 31 PuRP) singled to lead off the frame and scored on a one-out, two-run Sterlin Thompson (Nº 17 PuRP) homer that cut the lead to 3-2 and ended his outing. Duncan Snyder was nails the rest of the way for Lake Elsinore, however, allowing just a hit and a walk and K’ing three for an old-school, eight-out save.
It’s a bitter conclusion to the season for Fresno after dominating the California League for most of the season, and this is just how baseball works sometimes: after scoring almost seven runs per game during the regular season and outscoring opponents by over 200 runs in 132 games, the Grizzlies were outscored 4-16 in two crucial championship games. The season should still be looked at as a major success, of course. Fresno was dominant for long stretches, broke many records and saw the breakouts of many young pitchers and position players, a lot of them part of the exciting wave of young Latino players throughout the system. Their final record was 83-49 (.629), one of the very best winning percentages across MiLB.
We are so grateful for the continued support from the amazing fans of Growlifornia and we can’t wait to see you all in 2023. We will be back with a vengeance.https://t.co/we4PfTsQfL— Fresno Grizzlies (@FresnoGrizzlies) September 21, 2022
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