Notes: Bard's bulk, Gray's arm, Nuñez's glove

February 21st, 2021

DENVER -- Rockies reliever had a dream season amidst the general nightmare of 2020, in all ways except one.

Out of the Majors since 2013 because of severe control problems -- “the yips” -- Bard regained the magic. The right-hander went 4-2 with a 3.65 ERA and six saves in 23 appearances. He earned the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award.

“The only thing that could have made things more memorable for me was having fans in the stands, feeding off that energy,” Bard said. “And personally, just being able to have my family to the games. I got three kids that haven’t seen me pitch in person in a game. We’re hoping that happens at some point this year, and that’s probably what I’m selfishly looking forward to most.”

Bard, 35, grabbed the closer job after Wade Davis (now with the Royals) struggled and was injured, and and couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity. , who would have been the first fallback after Davis, missed the year because of blood clots in his right arm.

Oberg is back after thoracic outlet surgery, but the Rockies likely will exercise caution with his workload, at least initially. The way Bard finished last season makes him logical to pencil-in, although he said, “I just want to pitch,” and didn’t campaign for a role.

He didn’t campaign, but he did prepare. Knowing that he is going into a 162-game schedule, Bard gave himself over to the Rockies’ strength and conditioning emphasis on the legs.

“A lot of guys go off and do their own thing,” he said. “I liked what they had to offer here, so I pretty much stuck with the Rockies’ program, which was a lot of squats. It was like, every day, just show up and do more squats, which is what I needed, especially after a couple years out. It was good total body strength.”

The 6-foot-4 Bard said he gained 12 pounds, to around 212.

Much has happened since Bard joined the Rockies during Spring Training 2020, after having left playing and serving as a D-backs mental skills coach. No one knew whether game action would bring back old problems.

“I’ll put it this way: Last Spring Training there was probably a little of that in all of us watching this comeback unfold,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “But as each day went on, each bullpen session went on and each batting practice session, then Spring Training games, then we got down to Texas and he got his first win, that lessened a great deal.”

Put away the pain, put away the hitter
Over five seasons (2015-19), Rockies right-hander struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings. During a rough 2020 season that was more abbreviated for Gray (eight starts) than others, his strikeouts per nine dropped to 5.1.

The Statcast numbers show that during the seasons of high strikeouts, the yearly putaway rate on Gray’s slider (the number of times he coaxed a third strike with it) ran from 28% to 31.6%. Well, last season, that rate plummeted to 14.8%.

What did that tell us?

Gray can be, as Black put it, “a perfectionist,” especially when it comes to the slider. He threw it less: 29.2% of the time in 2020 as opposed to 33.5% in ’19.

But could this all come down to health?

Gray experienced tightness in the arm and felt he could pitch through it. But when he couldn’t achieve consistent velocity on his fastball or snap on his slider, the Rockies shut him down in early September. It led to an offseason of adherence to a shoulder maintenance program and to acupuncture.

“That was something I really wanted to take care of,” Gray said. “There's been two, almost three seasons where injuries really cut me down. I’ve always wanted to be like a horse for this team, to be a guy that throws 200 innings a year. I’m working for that.”

Rockies bullpen coach Darryl Scott, who knew Gray as he was progressing in the Minors and understood Gray’s desire to push through despite compromised health, has watched Gray’s sessions the past three weeks. Official workouts began Thursday, but Gray lives in Scottsdale and did his throwing at the complex.

“He looks great, he sounds great – he’s Jonny, such a good person and such a nice, nice guy,” Scott said. “The shoulder feels great. He’s throwing all pitches and is full go.”

Imitation, flattery
From 2016 through last season, converted infielder Tony Wolters used his athletic instincts and accurate arm to give the Rockies an impact defensive catcher. With Wolters having signed with the Pirates, rookie hopes to bring similar skills to the Rockies. Nuñez was drafted as an infielder in ’13.

As Wolters showed, infield skills can make a difference in picking pitches out of the dirt and throwing effectively, blocking pitches and on bunts and slow rollers.

“With the pick plays and the blocking, as far as my athleticism, I think I can definitely at least be close to what Tony was,” Nuñez said. “I believe in myself and my abilities for sure behind the plate.”