15 May 2017

J.J. Hardy Needs To Make An Adjustment

J.J. Hardy is in what is likely the final year of his contract with the Baltimore Orioles. Sure, he’s got a $14 million option ($2 million buyout) for the 2018 season, but there is no chance that gets picked up if he continues to play the 2017 season the way he has started it. Interestingly enough, according to Cot’s Contracts, that 2018 option vests if he reaches 600 plate appearances in 2017, or a combined 1,150 combined plate appearances between the 2016 and 2017 season. He must also pass a team physical following the 2017, which history tells us can sometimes be a challenge. He’s not going to get to a combined 1,150 between 2016 and 2017, but he is currently on pace for 638 PA’s in 2017.

J.J. Hardy (photo via Keith Allison)
Vesting options aside, Hardy’s most recent contract hasn’t looked all that great for the Orioles, as he’s been worth 2.3 fWAR over the first two years of the deal for a total cost of $24 million (though due to lack of viable SS options available for a team in a competitive window one could argue that it’s not quite as bad as it looks – still not good though). The way 2017 is shaping up for Hardy, it has a chance to look even worse as he’s currently been worth -0.5 fWAR. Both DRS (-1) and UZR (-0.9) say that Hardy’s typically stellar defense has taken a step back this year (albeit in a very small sample size). But if you haven’t been paying attention (just kidding, I know you have), it’s Hardy’s hitting that has absolutely cratered the early part of his season. He’s hitting a (easy) career worst .203/.240/.276 that’s been good for a 37 wRC+. His walk rate is 2.0% below his career average and his K rate is 4.8% above his career average. His line drive rate is down (his fly ball rate is up…we’ll get to that in a second). There is literally nothing positive to discuss when it comes to Hardy’s offensive performance this year.

So why is this happening? Hardy is 34 years old, so it’s entirely possible that his natural physical abilities just aren’t what they used to be, though if that’s true, 2017 has so far been a very steep cliff to fall from. Hardy’s value as a hitter has always come via his power, which is much better than the typical MLB shortstop. But his power is strictly to left field (his pull side). In fact, only 10% of his home runs since 2009 have gone to center or right field. And this year, he is only pulling the ball 31.6% of the time, which is well below his career average of 44.2%. In fact, the last time he pulled the ball below 40% of the time (37.3% in 2009), Hardy finished the year with .229/.302/.357 line, good for a 75 wRC+. While Hardy’s increase in flyball rate is good considering his profile, the fact that he’s not pulling those flyballs is not promising.

As you can see in the figure below, Hardy’s strength as a hitter has always been a fastball in (and up).

This makes sense given his profile as a pull power hitter. As you can see in the progression of images below, pitchers have gradually thrown Hardy inside fastballs less often as his career progressed. They appear to be doing so even less in the early months of 2017.

So Hardy is seeing fewer inside fastballs than ever in 2017. So what is happening to those pitches that find their way into that zone? Not much, as Hardy isn’t turning on them and hitting them with authority like he used to.

Additionally, while I don’t want to lean on exit velocity too much for this analysis with only 1.25 years of data, there is a stark difference between Hardy’s exit velocity on inside pitches between 2016 and 2017 (exit velocity shown is for all pitches thrown, not just fastballs).

It’s possible that Hardy’s bat has just slowed down and he isn’t getting around on those inside pitches as quickly as he used to. It happens as a player ages. With Hardy’s injury history, it’s also possible that he’s not playing at 100%, but we have no way of knowing that. Assuming he’s healthy, he may need to start cheating on inside fastballs or change his approach and commit to hitting the ball the other way, most likely sacrificing his power in the process. He may need to do both, since cheating on the inside fastball will only last for so long until the league catches on.

It’s still early in the season, so there is time for Hardy to turn his dismal start around. However, it’s entirely likely the J.J. Hardy is no longer the hitter he used to be, and that may be ok, if he can find a way to successfully adjust his strategy at the plate. Even if that is the case and Hardy turns his season around, the Orioles may want to hope that he doesn’t reach 600 plate appearances.

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