Sunday, November 08, 2009

Analysis: JJ Hardy

You did not have to delve too deep into the TwinsCentric Offseason GM Handbook to realize where the Twins had a surplus. In fact, we wrote it out in play English: “Two quality players overlapping playing time should suggest an area of excess.” Thanks to Heater Magazine’s supplied Playing Time Constellation chart, one can easily glean that Ron Gardenhire treated his center field situation with a duel banjo system. For a while, Carlos Gomez would get his solo before giving stage to Denard Span, then back-and-forth, back-and-forth. This dizzying medley of center fielders was bound to grind to a halt at some point.

On Friday, it did.

The Twins took advantage of this trade chip in center to secure what might be the unanimously accepted best shortstop available on either the trade or free market this offseason, nabbing a former All Star shortstop that is just entering the prime years of his career – also under club control for several more years at a presumed discounted rate. It would be hard to get enthused over the current at-large crop of free agent shortstops as the short list is headlined with Orlando Cabrera (35) and Marco Scutaro (33) reigning supreme. One is a player on the downslope of his career unable to sustain an OBP above .325 while declining defensively and the other had a late foray into the starting lineup, providing above-average defense but shrouded in doubt about his offensive capabilities. The former is probably seeking a two-year deal in the ballpark of $8-to-$10 million while the latter is primed for a three-year, $30 million deal. In theory, JJ Hardy, at 27 years old, can provide the Twins with both high-caliber offense and defense at a reasonable bargain for more than just a season or two; he can be an answer, not a temporary solution.

At face value, it is easy to part with a player who had compiled a 645 OPS in slightly under 1000 PAs in a Twins uniform. However, giving up perhaps one of the best defensive center fielder in the game not named Franklin Gutierrez, who is also several years away from peak playing years, is not as lopsided as many have reacted locally. The Twins pitching staff - one with baseball’s highest fly ball tendency (41 percent) - would have enjoyed a Verizon network-like coverage of Gomez and Span sharing the same outfield. Additionally, Gomez started to make improvements in his zone discipline and line drive rates so with playing time, which means he is probably several OPS points higher in 2010 and further away from his train wreckage. Nevertheless, the Twins, a team that is probably an 85-win baseline team, needs talent next year, not two-plus seasons from now. Hardy gives them an established player while the Brewers can now be tolerant as Gomez learns to slow the game down.

After averaging 25 home runs, 84 runs scored and a .280/.333/.470 batting line in 2007 and 2008, Hardy’s stats went to hell in 2009, hitting 11 home runs and producing a batting line of .229/.302/.357. What exactly did the Twins receive and what can be expected of JJ Hardy in 2010?

While some baseball analysts are citing Hardy’s below-league average BABIP (.263) as an indicator that his 2010 season will resemble his 2008 campaign, I am not completely sold on that might be the case. True, his average on line drives of .674 was well below the league average of .729 but Hardy only roped pitches on just 14% of total balls in play (19% is league average). For a significant BABIP rebound effect to occur, Hardy’s line drive rate would have to be closer to league average. In addition to that, Hardy’s experienced a nasty downturn in line drive annually since 2006 – dropping from 19 to 17 to 15 to the new career low of 14.

Furthermore, Hardy’s ability to make contact has dropped as well:

Contact #’s












Interestingly enough, Hardy’s walk rate has grown each year, suggesting that he still exercises good zone judgment. He is simply failing to make the same kind of contact. Low line drive rates and dropping contact percentage suggests something larger at foot beyond the realm of “luck”.

More likely, it is Hardy’s continual adjustments in the batter’s box that has been dragging down his numbers. As Alex Eisenberg at points out in a must-read scouting report on the new Twins shortstop, Hardy has opened his stance more since 2007 and has extended his arms out over the plate instead of back where they were in ‘07. The results of these adjustments have wreaked havoc on his ability to detonate left-handed pitching. For most of his career, Hardy has demonstrated a high competency of handling left-handed pitching only to see that skill vaporize in 2009:

















Hardy experienced a glaring hole in his swing on pitches away. True to Eisenberg’s hypothesis, left-handed pitchers had a field day working him away. Instead of driving the ball with power, Hardy was feebly beating the ball into the ground. Once an area that Hardy would punish became his biggest Achilles’ heel:

Vs LHP Away



Fly Ball%













So Hardy’s 2009 season hit some physical (which as Eisenberg notes, turned into mental) flaws rather than hitting balls at defenders.

If Hardy works out the kinks this offseason, can we expect him to rebound to his 25 home run average? I am apprehensive about that as well. Over at, the database of every dinger measurement (get your mind out of the gutter) and the ‘true’ home run distances, founder Greg Rybarczyk had diligently categorizes three types of home runs:

No Doubts - Which means the ball cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet and landed at least 50 feet past the fence. These are your majestic home runs by the prolific home run hitters.

Just Enough -Where the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, or that it landed less than one fence height past the fence. These home runs barely cleared.

Plenty - Everything in between.

According to Rybarczyk’s work, the average hitter typically hits 27 percent of their homers that categorize as Just Enough, 55 percent that qualify as Plenty and 18 percent as No Doubts. Similar to the BABIP effect, if a hitter winds up with a higher percent of Just Enoughs, they may have benefited from a sizeable amount of luck (and vice versa). In both 2007 and 2008, 40 percent of Hardy’s home runs fell under the category of Just Enoughs. If anything, Hardy’s home run total dip in 2009 should have been expected as some of those fly balls ricochets off of the wall instead of clearing.

Also mentioned above, there are some question marks with his stance, but Hardy has a solid foundation and it appears that fixing him would take several tweaks instead of complete overhauls. Do I expect 25 home runs? No, but flirting with 20 isn’t out of possibility. His 2010 season will likely resemble his career batting line (.263/.323/.423) and for a shortstop, that’s solid production. At the end of the day Hardy’s acquisition solves several problems for the Twins. First, it solidifies the shortstop position with an above-average defender. As noted above, the free market for shortstops was less than appetizing and most likely temporary. Internally, Nick Punto, while riding a very good September and October (base-running gaffs aside), is an unknown offensively and has seen his range diminish enough to be shifted down the defensive spectrum. Secondly, Hardy’s right-handed bat, when swinging properly, damages left-handed pitching beyond repair. With the exception of Michael Cuddyer, the Twins are deficient in this area.

One acquisition, two problems solved.