Hindsight 2020: Bobby Valentine's role in Daniel Bard's Red Sox freefall

John Tomase

There's plenty of blame to heap on Bobby Valentine for the disaster that was the 2012 Red Sox.

He created an atmosphere of paranoia among his coaches, fostered distrust among his players, and allowed a lack of accountability that permeated the organization to start at his door.

It only took the Red Sox one year to clean up his mess, with John Farrell overseeing the Boston Strong World Series that erased the memory of 2012 before it could fester.

That said, Valentine botched the implementation of one decision with truly lasting consequences: the transition of Daniel Bard from reliever to starter, which is today's managerial installment in our Hindsight 2020 series.

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In an alternate universe, Bard is still closing games for the Red Sox as a 34-year-old All-Star entering his 12th season. Instead, he's effectively out of baseball, undone by a mystifying inability to throw strikes that started on Valentine's watch and snowballed into something heartbreaking.

More than 10 years later, it's hard to overstate the impact Bard made when he arrived in 2009 as a flame-throwing reliever, just three years after being selected in the first round of the 2006 draft out of North Carolina.

He struck out 63 in just 49.1 innings as a rookie before making the leap in 2010, posting a 1.93 ERA in 73 appearances and striking out over a batter an inning. He regressed in 2011, posting a 2-9 record and losing four games during the September collapse that hastened the departures of both manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein, opening the door for Valentine.

Before the new skipper even arrived, Bard had already planted the seeds with general manager Ben Cherington. Drafted as a starter, Bard saw a return to the rotation as a chance to make real money. It did not escape his notice that All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon received $50 million in free agency from the Phillies the same offseason that converted reliever C.J. Wilson cashed in for $75 million with the Angels.

Though dominant eighth-inning arms were invaluable when Bard arrived in 2009, they weren't the showstoppers they are today. Bard's former UNC teammate, Andrew Miller, would help usher in that era a few years later with the Yankees and Indians, and he has been well-compensated for it. His career earnings should top $80 million if the 2020 season is played.

So with that backdrop, it made sense that Bard would want to rejoin the rotation. That the Red Sox would agree wasn't a slam dunk, since he had started his career in horror-show fashion at High-A Lancaster, allowing a staggering 44 baserunners in just 13.1 innings in 2007, exhibiting some of the symptoms that would derail his career five years later - namely an inability to throw strikes.

Those struggles prompted a move to the bullpen, and Bard soared to the majors two years later.

By the time spring training rolled around in 2012, Bard expressed confidence that the transition would work. Valentine wasn't nearly as sold, with stories leaking that he'd return Bard to the bullpen at his first opportunity, and an infamous answer of "could be" just days into the season when asked if Bard might assume the closer's role in the wake of struggles by Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves. It's doubtful that stance did much for Bard's confidence as a starter.

"I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think it was going to work," Bard insisted at the time. "I'm all in. I'm committed to it and they are, too."

Bard opened the season as the fifth starter and seemed to find his groove in late April, limiting the Rays to one run in one start (albeit while walking 7) and then beating the White Sox with seven effective innings of three-run ball.

Then came the June start in Toronto that changed everything. Bard missed the plate so badly, it was scary. He lasted just 1.2 innings after surrendering five runs on only one hit, walking six, drilling two, and sending two fastballs to the backstop. He left Valentine no choice but to yank him before he hurt someone.

Unfortunately, irreparable damage had been done to his career, and Bard seemed to sense it that night.

"I allowed something to happen when I switched roles,'' he said. "I think it's just maybe that we tried to turn me into a starter rather than just take the same pitcher I was out of the pen and move that guy to the rotation, which is probably what we should've done."

Bard disappeared for three months before returning on Aug. 31 in a 20-2 loss to the A's as a reliever. He allowed runs in five of his final six relief appearances. He made just two appearances in 2013 - earning a World Series ring as a result - and hasn't appeared in a big league game since.

He announced his retirement in 2017, but attempted a comeback with the Rockies this spring, allowing seven runs and eight baserunners in just 1.2 innings.

It's entirely possible his career would've ended this way no matter which path he chose - after all, the wheels had already started coming off in 2011, when he posted a 10.64 ERA in September. But even though Valentine isn't to blame for the decision to make Bard a starter, the half-hearted way he implemented it and the mixed messages he sent along the way set the formerly dominant reliever on a path to ruin.

Hindsight 2020: Bobby Valentine's role in Daniel Bard's Red Sox freefall originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston