15 January 2013

Will J.J. Hardy's Bat Bounce Back?

by Matt Kremnitzer

When Andy MacPhail traded for J.J. Hardy in December 2010, fans were happy – not so much because Hardy’s a superstar, but because the team had acquired a decent shortstop for the cheap price of Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson. It simply made sense. The Orioles avoided arbitration with Hardy that year and signed him for $5.85 million. Known for his glove more than his bat, Hardy played great defense and surprised fans with one of his best offensive seasons (.269/.310/.491, .344 wOBA).

In July of that season, the O’s rewarded Hardy with a three-year, $22.25 million extension through 2014. In the deal, Hardy received a $1.25 million signing bonus and will make $7 million in all three seasons. That’s a more than reasonable deal, especially considering how valuable strong defense at shortstop is. Even in a down offensive year in 2012 (.238/.282/.389, .290 wOBA), Hardy, according to FanGraphs, was worth $12.5 million (compared to $21.7 million in 2011), mostly because of his superb defense (11.4 UZR).

Locked up for the next two seasons, Hardy still presents solid value. And unless the O’s are overwhelmed (or “above overwhelmed”) by a trade offer, I doubt they’re going to trade him, even with Manny Machado waiting in the wings to take over his position.

So here’s the most pressing issue for Hardy: Can he start hitting like he did in 2011 (or 2007/2008) again? Well, possibly, but it won’t be easy. For his career, Hardy is a .259/.314/.427, .322 wOBA hitter. Before coming to Baltimore, he was a little more patient and better at drawing walks. In 2011 and 2012, his walk percentages were 5.5% and 5.3%, respectively; his previous lowest walk percentage had been 6.3% in 2007. He also struck out slightly more than usual in 2011 (16.2% vs. 14.6% for his career) but made opposing pitchers pay when he made contact. His .491 slugging percentage in 2011 was the highest of his career. In 2012, he didn’t walk, yet he struck out slightly less (14.9%) and hit for way less power (his ISO dropped from .222 to .151). Yikes.

It’s hard to discuss Hardy’s approach at the plate without discussing his single year with the Twins in 2010. Dealing with a painful wrist injury, Hardy played in just 101 games, hitting .268/.320/.394 with a .315 wOBA. Compared to last season, those numbers aren’t so bad. But he barely hit for any power that season (he had just six homers), and as it was later revealed, the Twins wanted Hardy to be an all-around hitter – the type who laces line drives all over the field. That’s not Hardy’s strength, though, and at the urging of hitting coach Jim Presley, Hardy focused on being more aggressive and pulling the ball.

Here’s what Presley said in March of 2011: “He's been told to just stay the other way, and he said ‘I kind of lost my swing, I lost my juice.’… I told him to get rid of that thought because we are fixing it. He's not a [punching] Judy. This guy doesn't flare the ball the other way. He's got some juice and he can drive some runs in.”

Presley was right. Hardy’s slugging percentage jumped nearly 100 points from 2010 to 2011. In 2010, Hardy’s 49.3 groundball percentage was the highest of his career while he also hit the fewest fly balls of his career (33.8%). Unsurprisingly, his 6.1 HR/FB ratio that season was also the lowest of his career. His wrist injury surely played a part in that, but so did the hitting style of the Twins. Next season, Hardy went in the other direction. He posted a career low 40.2 GB% while hitting the most fly balls he’s ever hit (43.4%). That approach resulted in two career highs: 30 home runs and a 15.7 % HR/FB.

Since groundballs are more likely to become hits than fly balls, it’s not shocking that Hardy’s on-base percentage dropped to .310. But with the damage he was doing when he did hit the ball in the air, it was a worthwhile trade-off. In 2012, though, Hardy couldn’t replicate those numbers. His GB% increased by three percentage points (to 43.3%), and his fly balls dropped almost four points (to 39.7%). And his impressive 15.7 % HR/FB rate dropped to just 10%.


Oddly enough, Hardy posted better plate discipline numbers in 2012. He swung at fewer pitches outside the zone (27.4% vs. 29.5%), swung at the same amount inside the zone (52.6%), and made better contact on pitches outside the zone (77.8% vs. 73.7%). He also made better contact on pitches inside the zone (92.5% vs. 92.0%) and better overall contact (87.7% vs. 86.0%). But he also wasn’t as aggressive, swinging less overall (40.4% vs. 41.8%), though that may have been because he didn’t get as many pitches inside the strike zone (51.6% vs. 53.3%).

It’s possible that Hardy wore down in 2012, which may partially explain the power outage. He played in the most games in his career (158) and went to the plate 713 times. He hadn’t batted that many times since receiving 638 plate appearances in 2007.

Hardy’s never going to be a high OBP hitter. He’s never posted an OBP above .343, and that came in a 2008 season in which everything came together for him. He also hit a ton of groundballs (48.4%) and still posted a 14.1 % HR/FB rate that season, which is pretty odd. But Hardy’s offensive game seems to be exactly what Presley and the O’s want. He’s unlikely to approach that 15.7 HR/FB rate again, but he’ll probably improve on that 10% number posted last season. In his two seasons in Baltimore, he’s averaging a HR/FB rate of 12.85%. As long as he’s healthy, there’s no reason he can’t post something similar to that. Considering the luck factor as well – Hardy had just a .253 BABIP while his career average is .275 – he should be due for a better 2013. I just wouldn’t expect another 2011.

14 January 2013

A Love Song for Kenny Lofton

First off, I find the Hall of Fame to be much ado about nothing much important.  It is an honor bestowed on former players by, pretty much, the press.  This is not a very scientific way to figure out any award.  The assumption is that a voter, having covered baseball, understands what it means to be a great baseball player.  This is a group that does not even have a great definition for what makes a baseball player great with a great many different takes on what the guidelines mean.  If that was not bad, you also have voters than invent rules, such as refusing to vote for non-elite Hall of Famers with their first appearance on the ballot or utilizing incredibly poor evidence to classify people as cheaters who have never been caught while doing what they can to get other cheaters into the Hall.  Regardless, the existence or exclusion of a player in the Hall should not define that player.

Second thing, I have no love for Kenny Lofton.  It is somewhat fair to say that if you ignore the Twins, Lofton must have enjoyed facing the Orioles. 

I Split PA H HR SB CS BA OBP SLG TB
Houston Astros 271 88 6 15 10 .373 .442 .538 127
Colorado Rockies 153 49 2 11 4 .360 .428 .515 70
St. Louis Cardinals 183 52 4 7 2 .321 .396 .506 82
Minnesota Twins 592 180 7 43 9 .347 .413 .484 251
Cincinnati Reds 232 63 8 6 4 .312 .390 .490 99
Baltimore Orioles 459 142 10 42 8 .339 .389 .489 205

As such, I have some underlying queasiness about lauding Lofton as a player.  I remember him as someone who tormented my team as I was growing up on the outskirts of the Baltimore metropolitan area.  As someone who really began to become engrossed in baseball during the early to mid 1990s, the Indians (not the Yankees, Red Sox, or Blue Jays) were the team that I recognized as our rivals.  Quite suitably, they were the ones who ended the Orioles 1997 playoff run (on a questionable called strike to Roberto Alomar), sending the Orioles off to 15 years lost in the wilderness.

Let us not forget that Lofton was also an exceptional defensive centerfielder.  He is the seventh best rated centerfielder based on runs saved with 104.  That roughly means that his defense alone made him worth 10 games won more than the average defender in centerfield.  Given how this is a premium defensive position, that is incredibly remarkable.


Combining those sentiments, it utterly shocked me that Kenny Lofton earned 18 of 569 possible votes.  A number that removes him from consideration in next year's ballot.  If this does not show how ridiculous the voting process is then I do not know how better to represent it.  Below is a listing of some of the greatest center fielders who ever played.

Rk
WAR WAR7 Yrs ASG H HR SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS+
1 Willie Mays HOF 150.8 71.5 22 24 3283 660 338 103 .302 .384 .557 156
2 Ty Cobb HOF 144.9 67.3 24 0 4189 117 897 212 .366 .433 .512 168
3 Tris Speaker HOF 127.8 60.1 22 0 3514 117 436 157 .345 .428 .500 157
4 Mickey Mantle HOF 105.5 63.0 18 20 2415 536 153 38 .298 .421 .557 172
5 Ken Griffey 79.2 52.3 22 13 2781 630 184 69 .284 .370 .538 136
6 Joe DiMaggio HOF 75.1 49.1 13 13 2214 361 30 9 .325 .398 .579 155
7 Duke Snider HOF 63.1 48.1 18 8 2116 407 99 50 .295 .380 .540 140
Avg of 18 HOFers at CF 67.1 42.5
8 Kenny Lofton 64.9 42.0 17 6 2428 130 622 160 .299 .372 .423 107
9 Andruw Jones 59.5 44.8 17 5 1933 434 152 59 .254 .337 .486 111
10 Richie Ashburn HOF 60.2 42.9 15 6 2574 29 234 92 .308 .396 .382 111
11 Billy Hamilton HOF 61.1 41.8 14 0 2164 40 914 .344 .455 .432 141
12 Carlos Beltran 62.3 40.4 15 7 2064 334 306 47 .282 .360 .496 122
13 Andre Dawson HOF 60.6 41.0 21 8 2774 438 314 109 .279 .323 .482 119
14 Jim Edmonds 57.3 41.0 17 4 1949 393 67 50 .284 .376 .527 132
15 Jim Wynn 53.1 42.0 15 3 1665 291 225 101 .250 .366 .436 129
16 Willie Davis 56.8 36.8 18 2 2561 182 398 131 .279 .311 .412 106
17 Cesar Cedeno 49.7 40.1 17 4 2087 199 550 179 .285 .347 .443 123
18 Vada Pinson 50.2 38.1 18 4 2757 256 305 122 .286 .327 .442 111
19 Chet Lemon 52.0 35.5 16 3 1875 215 58 76 .273 .355 .442 121
20 Larry Doby HOF 47.0 38.0 13 7 1515 253 47 36 .283 .386 .490 136
21 Kirby Puckett HOF 48.2 35.8 12 10 2304 207 134 76 .318 .360 .477 124
22 Johnny Damon 52.1 31.4 18 2 2769 235 408 103 .284 .352 .433 104
23 Max Carey HOF 51.1 32.2 20 0 2665 70 738 109 .285 .361 .386 108
24 Fred Lynn 46.7 36.5 17 9 1960 306 72 54 .283 .360 .484 129
25 Dale Murphy 42.6 39.0 18 7 2111 398 161 68 .265 .346 .469 121

Lofton rates slightly below average against the average Hall of Fame centerfielder.  Again, a player whose value is roughly that of an average Hall of Fame centerfielder received 18 votes out of 569.  This is a problem not only for the traditional values voters, but also the new breed who embrace using advanced metrics.  Two darlings of the metrics crowd are Larry Walker and Tim Raines (who has gotten massive support for his election).

Player WAR/pos From To G PA H 2B 3B HR SB CS BA OBP SLG
Larry Walker 69.7 1989 2005 1988 8030 2160 471 62 383 230 76 .313 .400 .565
Tim Raines 66.2 1979 2002 2502 10359 2605 430 113 170 808 146 .294 .385 .425
Kenny Lofton 64.9 1991 2007 2103 9235 2428 383 116 130 622 160 .299 .372 .423
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used

I do not see much of a difference between these players.  Lofton's performance is in line with Raines, so I do not truly see the difference there.  Lofton played in the same era as Walker, which makes it questionable that the shadow of steroids affected Lofton for playing in this era.  Simply put, the voters forgot about how valuable Lofton was and illustrated how they fail to understand, at times, what makes a player exceptional.

Thus ends my love song for Kenny Lofton.  Let us never speak of this again.