Thursday, August 23, 2012

J.J. Hardy is not doing what the O's need him to

J.J. Hardy is a superb defensive shortstop, but he's consistently batted in the second spot the entire season despite putting up awful offensive numbers (.226/.273/.372). In his first season with the Orioles last year, Hardy batted .269/.310/.491, which isn't ideal for a No. 2 hitter because of the low on-base percentage, but it didn't hurt the O's much because he displayed a surprising amount of power. He posted a .222 ISO (isolated power, which measures a player's ability to hit for power/get extra-base hits) -- the best of his career -- yet only has a .146 ISO right now, which would be one of the lowest of his career.

So what's gone wrong? Let's explore.

Hardy's walk and strikeout numbers aren't much different. In fact, he's striking out less and walking slightly more.

2011: 5.5 BB%, 16.2 K%
2012: 5.7 BB%, 15.2 K%

His BABIP is low, though, which means he's been somewhat unlucky. He's only posted a BABIP above .300 once in his career, but this season's .240 mark is lower than his career BABIP of .274. So he's due for a few more hits to drop in, but that doesn't solely explain an OBP this low.

He's hitting more line drives this season than last (from 16.4% to 17.5%), and his ground ball/fly ball ratio is higher than last season (from 0.93 to 1.02). His home run/fly ball ratio (9.4%) is also nowhere near last seasons's (15.7%). So he's hitting the ball somewhat harder, but overall he's hitter fewer fly balls -- and even fewer of them are leaving the ballpark.

Hardy's plate discipline isn't the problem either. Not only is he swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, but he's making more contact with those pitches as well. He's swinging at about as many pitches in the zone and overall is swinging the bat slightly less, but that doesn't explain the significant drop in his numbers either.

So what's been the problem? Fastballs and right-handed pitching. I think it was Jim Palmer who either last night or the night before discussed how Hardy seems to be having trouble with outside fastballs and ones tailing away. Hardy's a pull hitter who likes to turn on inside pitches. He doesn't hit the ball to the opposite field often, and when he's down in the count he'll try to foul off pitches he can't handle until he gets something that he can. After destroying fastballs last season (per Fangraphs PITCHf/x pitch value data), Hardy's not hitting them much this season and is actually hitting some offspeed pitches slightly better.

Also, here are Hardy's splits this season (and career splits in parentheses) vs. right-handed and left-handed pitching:

vs. RHP: .215/.255/.362 (.256/.303/.413)
vs. LHP: .261/.328/.403 (.266/.345/.466)

Again, Hardy's numbers are down across the board. But his numbers against lefties this season are at least serviceable for a strong defensive shortstop. Those numbers against righties, though, are truly ugly.

It's worth remembering that last July Hardy was given a three-year, $22.25 million extension. It's nice that the O's found their short-term option at shortstop and that Hardy is so good defensively at that position, but if he's not hitting he's not helping the club nearly as much as he did in 2011. Instead of trading Hardy at the trade deadline last season when he was arguably having the best season of his career, the O's are stuck with the possibility that Hardy peaked and may only be a shell of that previous offensive force. Also, if Manny Machado stays in the majors and is on the club after spring training next season, and there's really no reason to think that he won't, then Hardy is blocking Machado's true position, or at least the position he should be playing at the big league level until he proves that he can't.

I like Hardy and he's a steady, veteran presence who has helped the O's get where they are right now, but it's looking more and more like the O's and Andy MacPhail missed a big opportunity to sell high on Hardy a year ago and add a few pieces to fill other holes in the O's farm system.