Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mariners fans, look out for Josh Bard

A seemingly innocuous acquisition of lefthanded journeyman catcher Josh Bard by the Seattle Mariners seems like little more than a depth move, as Bard's career 259/326/389 and caught stealing percentage of 20% indicates that he's as marginal as the other current Mariners options at catcher (all-defense Rob Johnson and prospect Adam Moore, who may need a bit more time in AAA).

But Bard's history masks an ability that exceeds his numbers, and a friendlier situation in Seattle may allow him to break out in the likely event that Johnson's surgically repaired hip and wrist haven't healed and Moore isn't quite ready to play regularly at the MLB level.

First point: 3+ seasons in pitcher friendly home parks may have disguised Bard's potential as a useful hitter. Bard posted decent line drive rates over the last three seasons:

2009: 18.3%
2008: 21.6%
2007: 18.7%

Bard's Groundball rates, good as groundballs tend to go for hits more often than flyballs (though flyballs obv lead to more XBHs), also look good.

GB rates:
2009: 51.8%
2008: 47.1%
2007: 40.0%

Basically, he's clearly getting on top of the ball like a good hitter and putting the ball in play with consistent, strong contact. Given averages on each different type of ball in play, here are composite numbers for 2007-2009 with walks and strikeouts included based on my method that uses batted ball rates to create a composite line that reflects how said player did.

2009: 267/328/431
2008: 301/368/453
2007: 287/370/440

Bard played 2007-2008 in San Diego, which has one of the most pitcher-friendly offense-depressing environments in MLB, and shared a division with the Dodgers (who play in pitcher friendly Chavez Ravine) and Giants (pitcher friendly AT&T Park). He played 2009 in Washington DC, which has a new park that has shown to be neutral at best but trends slightly in favor of pitching, and in an NL East with a pitcher friendly park (Landshark Stadium in FLA) and two parks that trend towards the pitcher (Turner Field in ATL and Citi Field in Queens, NY). They also play an interleague rival series with the Mariners in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.

Bard's actual stats:

2007: 285/364/404 (443 Plate Appearances), 235/341/344 at home
2008: 202/279/270 (198 PA), 177/261/190 at home
2009: 230/293/361 (301 PA), 243/304/392 at home

The park thing is by no means a dealbreaker. Note that in 2007, the only season where he seized most of the playing time, he posted decent numbers despite playing in San Diego (and the listed home splits tell the story). Partial playing time as well as nagging injuries may have also prevented him from keeping his rhythm with his swing, which certainly doesn't help.

The hitting stats from the last two years aren't reflective of what Bard can bring to the table as a hitter. His walk rate per PA has never dropped below a respectable 8% and has typically stuck closer to 9-10%. His K rates never go above 17% (whiffers usually hit the 24-26% mark), so he still makes consistent contact. His career isolated power of .130 indicates he hasn't lost any power, and the batted ball splits indicate he consistently gets on top of the ball. Add in Safeco's short-ish RF porch which favors Bard's switch hitting ability when lefthanded, and it's possible Bard's numbers could see a spike in Seattle in 2009.

But then there's Bard's low CS% of 20%. The baseline for success is 25-30%. Catch more than that, and you're containing baserunners. Catch less than that and they're gaining an edge on you.

Is that Bard's fault? History indicates not. With his first team, Cleveland, Bard posted some decent CS numbers: 37.1% over his 3+ seasons with the Indians. It's only after he began his brief ill-fated stint in Boston as knuckleballer Tim Wakefield's personal catcher than things tumbled. Knuckleballers are easy to run on and difficult to catch for in general and Bard allowed 12 of 13 runners to steal. But the problem continued when he ended up in San Diego:


2006: 20%
2007: 8%
2008: 16%

What happened to Josh Bard's arm? The San Diego Padres rotation, that's what.

Here are career stolen base allowance rates for key Padres SPs that Bard worked with (remember, you want a number lower than 70%):

Jake Peavy: 82%
Greg Maddux: 76%
Chris Young: 91% (Fun fact: All 44 stolen base attempts against him in 2007 were successful)
Justin Germano: 84%
David Wells: 69%
Randy Wolf: 60%
Cha Seung Baek: 58%
Josh Banks: 81%

Of that group, only Wells, Wolf and Baek posted good career numbers, and Wells and Wolf spent much of their careers somewhere else. Also, Bard only caught full time with the Pads for about 1838.2 innings. There are about 1450 innings in a typical regular season, and the careers of those first four pitchers span well past a full season.

Go figure that when Bard played for the Nationals in 2009, his CS% went up to 27%. Also, Bard wasn't the only Pads catcher that struggled to throw out baserunners: Young catcher Nick Hundley's career CS percentage is 22%, and all 138 of his career games have come with the Pads.

Connect the dots. I don't think Josh Bard's arm was the problem with the Padres SB-allowance situation as much as the tendency of his SPs to either work with slower, more exploitable windups or work under managerial and coaching direction that de-emphasized controlling the running game. Which exactly it was, we don't know, but Bard was clearly in a situation with San Diego where he didn't have the chance to gun down runners that he would have on a typical MLB team.

Bard's got a better arm than the numbers indicate. And I have a feeling Z and his crew see this as well. This doesn't look like more than a depth acquisition, but don't be surprised if Bard's not only on the 2010 Opening Day Seattle Mariners roster, but he becomes the regular catcher and posts a breakout season, while helping the Mariners address their issues with containing opposing baserunners.

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