In February 2020 during a search for more depth the Colorado Rockies decided to take a flyer on a 34-year-old reliever that hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2013. Daniel Bard was determined to prove to himself and the baseball world that he had plenty more in the tank.
Three years later, as one of the elite relievers in MLB for the Colorado Rockies, Bard toed the rubber for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
Chapter 1: The Rise and Fall
Originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 1st round of the 2006 MLB Draft, he quickly rose through the ranks of the Red Sox System. He debuted in 2009 from 2009-2011 and made an immediate impact with a 2.88 ERA, 9.7 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, and 0.7 HR/9 in his first 197 innings. He had the makings of the next big closer for the Red Sox, the heir apparent to Jonathan Papelbon. He was every team’s dream with an electric arm that could be trusted to lock down the backend of a bullpen.
Unfortunately, just as quickly as he had risen, Daniel Bard spiraled into a classic case of a rather sudden loss of the ability to throw a baseball accurately, otherwise known as the “yips.”
In 2012, he lost command of the strike zone. He began to average 6.5 walks per nine innings pitched and posted a 6.22 ERA that season.
Reflecting on that time in his life, Bard told Sports Illustrated in 2020, “A year ago I was one of the best pitchers on the planet, now I’m having a hard time playing catch, but my arm feels fine. Is my diet messed up? Do I have a brain tumor?”
“You’re a failure,” he told himself.
An abdominal injury limited Bard to just a combined 16 1/3 innings between the Majors and Triple-A in 2013 where he walked a staggering 27 batters in that span. He played winter ball the following offseason and had a brief stint with the Rangers in 2014, which only confirmed that Bard’s control had vanished. Bard faced 31 batters between his time in the Puerto Rican Winter League and the Rangers’ Class-A club and walked 18 of them
A couple of comeback attempts with the Cardinals and Mets in 2016 and 2017 sadly resulted in similar results. The well of opportunities dried up and Bard chose to retire.
Chapter 2: The Roaming Bard
Eager to remain in the world of baseball, Bard connected with someone from his Boston days, Arizona Diamondbacks General Manger Mike Hazen, and was hired as a mental skills coach in 2018. Free from the pressures of big league pitching, Bard was able to help teach players about meditation, breathing techniques, and the mind-body connection.
He was able to ease back into pitching, often throwing with players on the field as a roaming minor league instructor in 2019. As he played catch with the players, the seeds of a new comeback were planted as his throwing partners noted hints of electricity in the arm still.
In January 2020, Bard began throwing to big league players that had gathered for winter workouts in Boston. A month later at a tryout for pro scouts, his fastball lit up the radars and it was the Rockies that jumped at the chance to sign Daniel Bard.
Chapter 3: Summer Camp Season
Unfortunately for Bard (and the rest of the world really), the emergence of COVID-19 shut everything down. Baseball was put on hiatus until the summer when the 60-game season was scheduled to occur. Leading up to the start of the season, teams held their own Summer Camp stand-ins for spring training and we saw Daniel Bard impress the team enough that he was going to break camp and be issued an actual jersey to replace the electrical tape one he had made.
On July 25, 2020, for the first time in nine long years, Bard stepped on a big league mound to face major league hitters in an actual game, and he did not disappoint.
With two men on and two outs in the bottom of the fifth, and the Rockies leading the Texas Rangers 2-1, it took Bard only 4 pitches to dispatch Elvis Andrus via flyout.
He then went to work in the 6th inning, Peppering fastballs, sinkers, sliders, and the almighty change-up, to retire the side with just two hits allowed and ultimately be credited with the win. He displayed a keen eye for the strike zone and the gas left in his arm, firing a fastball that clocked in at 98.7 mph.
And that wasn’t the end.
In his first season back at the age of 35, Bard went on to post a 3.65 ERA in 24 ⅔ innings of work. He dominated hitters, converted 6 save opportunities and, perhaps the most important thing, had 3.6 walks per nine, and 9.9 strikeouts per nine. After walking 40 batters in 2012, Bard dropped it down to 10 in 2020. His baseball peers recognized his success and he has voted the National League Comeback Player of the Year.
Bard overcame his yips, and the Rockies had found a diamond in the rough.
Chapter 4: Growing Pains
Sure, the 2020 season was a great comeback season for Bard, but with such a small sample size, it was still a bit unclear if Bard was legit or not. It would take a full 162-game season to see if he was just a flash in the pan or a valuable piece for the near future.
2021 was the year that truly tested him.
Coming out of spring training, the Rockies established that Daniel Bard would be the closer for the Rockies, a role that he had been groomed for since he was originally drafted.
Through his first four appearances in April, things fared pretty well. But, on April 17th, things began to drastically change for Bard.
Instead of being a commanding force that could dominate opposing batters, Bard began giving up hit after hit. The 1-2-3 innings of 2020 became lengthy efforts full of hits, walks, and home runs. Some of it was bad luck, some it was one bad outing (like a four-run outing on May 2) but overall it was just inconsistency.
Bard was a great pitcher at Coors Field, and against right-handed batters, but once he was on the road and facing a left-handed batter, all hell broke loose. Lefties batted over .300 against Bard, with a stagging .343 AVG on the road. They were the bane of his 2021 season, and by the end of August, Bard found himself ousted from his position as the closer.
The move proved beneficiary and he had a solid September to close the season, but by the end of the year, Bard’s future was up in the air. Sure, he converted 20 save opportunities, but he had eight blown saves to be among league leaders. He still had great numbers for strikeouts and walks, but he had an ERA over five.
The Rockies, staying true to their guns and love of loyalty, decided to hold on to Bard for one more year, but there was doubt that a 36-year-old reliever was worthy of getting another chance. The sheen had worn off from the previous year and it didn’t look like Bard was going to be the type of reliever a team can afford to hold on to.
But he had other plans.
Chapter 5: The Bard is back in town
2022 was another resurgence, the second wind of his comeback journey. Through his first 10 appearances across April and May, Bard boasted a 1.64 ERA with 14 strikeouts, one walk, and nine saves. He then allowed four total runs across his next three outings, but then he kicked things into a higher gear the rest of the way.
From May 18 to the end of the season, a total of 43 appearances, Bard allowed just six runs. Sporting a sub-two ERA at the trade deadline, it was speculated that Bard would be a hot commodity for teams looking for bullpen help. However, bucking the assumption of logic, the Rockies instead locked up their closer on a two-year, $19 million deal. For the first time in his career, Bard had security thanks to his performance beyond his years.
Bard’s efforts in 2022 resulted in the best year of his career. He ended up with a record of 6-4 with a 1.79 ERA in 60 1⁄3 innings of work. He also tallied 69 strikeouts to 25 walks along with a 0.994 WHIP. Surprisingly enough, Bard ended up finishing 16th in the National League MVP vote.
Chapter 6: The World Stage and Beyond
With the best season of his career at age 37, Bard looked for another opportunity to take advantage of the second chance he had discovered in baseball. The timing was perfect as the World Baseball Classic was to finally return in 2023.
“I didn’t think it would come at 37, the best year of my career,” Bard told Thomas Harding of MLB.com, “But I don’t think age really mattered, the way I was throwing the ball. When the year ended, I knew the WBC was happening. I looked at who might be the relievers on that team and was like, ‘I feel like I should be in that group.’”
And so, at the age of 38, the father of three took the mound for the first time during Team USA’s matchup against Team Mexico. The outing wasn’t ideal, but the significance of Bard’s story isn’t lost on the outcome of the game. His emergence as an elite reliever after enduring a baseball life of trials is as American as it gets.
Bard’s journey is an inspiring one. When you see the arduous path he had to endure to get where he is today, one can look on in awe at the perseverance to defy the odds. Bard’s story is one that many can and should find inspiration and apply to their own lives, whatever the challenge may be. What’s important to remember is that Bard wasn’t alone on his journey. He was surrounded by friends and teammates, and most importantly, his beloved wife Adair.
2023 will be another defining year of Bard’s career as he continues to prove that he is “Still Alive.”
In the Sports Illustrated interview from 2020, Bard said, “Through my struggles, I realized life is a lot less organized than we give it credit for. The world is the same way... it’s that it’s all pretty fragile. The stuff that matters is relationships and how you raise your kids. … I have to keep reminding myself of that daily. This opportunity with the Rockies is really cool, but it’s not gonna be permanent. Hopefully, it lasts five years, but just enjoy it daily.”
Almost prophetically woven by a poet of old, by the end of Bard’s contract in 2024, his time with the Rockies will have lasted five years.
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