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.

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