I’m rarely much of a political person — at least publicly — but the hardest I’ve ever campaigned was for the Twins to NOT trade J.J. Hardy after the 2010 season. It wasn’t as though I had any emotional connection to Hardy; the closest I ever came to even speaking to the guy was that I stood a few lockers away from him while I interviewed a few of his teammates.
But what I never really understood was what went wrong in that relationship. Hardy had a very good second half with the Twins. He was finally healthy and started hitting the ball better, and was essentially what the Twins and everyone could have dreamed for: a solid shortstop on both sides of the field.
But when whispers turned louder that Hardy was going to be dealt due to his upcoming salary hike via arbitration — note: I still don’t know if this is actually true — that really struck a nerve within me. Why would you trade for a guy in the first place if you don’t want him to ‘succeed’ and ‘earn’ a pay raise? Why not forget it altogether? And how about DON’T trade him for a couple *redacted* *redacted* redacted* middle relievers?
But what has passed is in the past; Hardy went on to have a phenomenal 2011 while the Twins withered in just the second year of their beautiful, taxpayer-provided Targe Mahal. But like Mark McGwire, I’m not here to talk about the past. Well, I sort of am, but I’ll still be talking about the same calendar year here.
Like a lot of people, I drafted Hardy in fantasy leagues this year almost solely on the basis of power. When Hardy is going right, his batting average isn’t really a stat killer — four seasons over .265 and better earlier in his career — but he doesn’t provide any steals, walks, or do a whole lot of anything else to endear himself to a fantasy owner. It really is a shame his defense can’t be accounted in leagues, but that’s neither here nor there.
Zach Sanders released his 2012 shortstop rankings earlier this week, and Hardy ranked 17th. Based on what most paid for him, I’d have to believe his season ending value of $8 probably comes up short, perhaps by as much as half what most paid for him. And while only Alcides Escobar — strangely, the player the Brewers moved Hardy in favor of — is truly surprising ahead of Hardy on the rankings, how would you have felt knowing Hardy was only going to be slightly more valuable than Mike Aviles when you drafted him? Probably not great.
But what truly made Hardy struggle this season? Some of his hallmarks were in place. After all, he still popped 22 home runs, scored and drove in his share of runs, and played his typical brand of excellent defense. His walk rate slipped again, but that’s been a four-year tumble dating back to his cataclysmic 2009 season with Milwaukee. With a wOBA of .290, something is/was clearly broken with Hardy. Even that 2009 season — which resulted in him spending ti.me in Nashville, for crying out loud — resulted in a .294 wOBA for Hardy, who turned 30 late last season.
It’s not entirely discouraging for Hardy to go through rough patches; he certainly regrouped from the last one in Milwaukee. But at age 30, he’s angling towards that final slump at some point; some guys mysteriously vanish from the game long before their primes are up, doomed by a slowing bat, an aching back, or an amalgamation of those and other things. Hardy has long battled injuries of various severities; could he be terminal?
Now let’s not get so morbid. Again, he was still relatively productive in the fantasy sense with the home runs, where he finished fourth overall. He still had to generate enough torque and strength to generate those, and I don’t believe anything would more signify the ‘end’ of Hardy than a dip in home run production. Defense would certainly be close, but he could hang around as a thumper after that if there was a need.
Hardy’s BABIP declined for the third-straight season in 2012, checking in at a meager .253. Glancing at his batted-ball profile really doesn’t tell us a whole lot, as Hardy hit 16.x percent line drives for the third consecutive season, and there’s little to no deviation between his popup, fly ball, and ground ball rates in that time frame. Essentially, he’s been good, great, and brutal in a three-year stretch despite doing pretty much exactly what he does with the stick consistently. He did peak with a little more flyballs in 2011, and a little better HR luck on those bird chasers, but to me this is still a head-scratcher.
One thing opposing pitchers did to Hardy more in 2012 than any time before was attack him with two-seam fastballs (3 percent or more than any previous year). For a perceived pull hitter like Hardy, I’m not entirely sure what that would do for him, though I should think not a great deal. Another thing Hardy has added is a chase-happy approach since he’s moved to Camden Yards, as he’s chased 5 percent more pitches out of the strike zone in each season in Baltimore versus his career marks. That seems awfully tough to do not only statistically — since career numbers take on that season’s swings — but also repetitively, since pitchers and coaches will pick up on these things.
But again we find a head-scratcher in that Hardy made the most contact of his career percentage-wise, yet his BABIP dropped despite similar rates. On sheer counting stats alone, Hardy hit 70 (!) more groundballs in 2012 than he did in 2011. And while he played 30 games more, his GB/GM rate — hand figured by me — was 1.53 in 2012 and 1.37 in 2011. So basically every five games resulted in another groundball for Hardy (note: grounders resulted in outs 76.2 percent of the time in 2012, and almost exactly the same in 2011). This certainly accounts for the 3 percent uptick in his rates, but he was still below his career mark anyway. Still, Hardy batted .245 on grounders in 2012 anyway, well above the league-average BABIP.
A bit further digging though seems to have uncovered the primary difference from Hardy’s 2012 and 2011: pulling the ball. And that’s going to sound funny; Hardy has ALWAYS pulled the ball. But in 2011, Hardy pulled the ball like a monster: .424/.418/.867, good for a .545 (!) wOBA. He still pulled the ball quite well in 2012 — .321/.321/.638 (.406 wOBA) — but he was rather ‘human’ in that aspect. It almost appears as if Hardy tried to spread the field again; this was a popular belief for his initial struggle in Minnesota, as since-deposed batting coach Joe Vavra has been vilified unfairly for trying to take pull power away from otherwise-inclined hitters. In 2011, Hardy completely ignored the right side of the field (.202 (!) wOBA to the opposite field), and centerfield wasn’t much better at .275. In 2012, his marks were .258 and .229, but with much higher rates of instance (i.e. batted balls in that direction).
This leaves me puzzled as to where we go from here. Keep an eye on where Hardy ends up; I can’t imagine he isn’t being shopped by the O’s so Manny Machado can settle in at shortstop. Then again, there’s really nobody to play third base either, so they could go that way while Hardy *hopefully* rebuilds his value in the offseason. The home runs should continue to be there for Hardy for the near future, but I just don’t think he’s capable of repeating that monstrous pull split in another full season. If you can grab him late for power, he’s worth it, but don’t reach. I’m thinking it’s pretty unlikely, though.