Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Changes have made JJ Hardy a powerhouse once again

At the end of 2009, JJ Hardy was an offensive mess.

His overall numbers were bad but his power production had almost evaporated. He had gone from a hitter who had hit 50 home runs from 2007-2008 to one who hit 11. Unable to figure neither his problem out nor willing to pay his escalating salary, the Brewers shipped in to Minnesota for an equally perplexing talent in Carlos Gomez.  

Not long after the trade, Alex Eisenberg at Baseball-Intellect.com compiled a marvelous progression of Hardy’s mechanical changes through his Brewers years. In determining his sudden drop-off in ’09, Eisenberg identified that Hardy had a significant arm bar in his swing causing him to have a longer swing in general. Knowing this, it is no surprise that Hardy struggled that year against left-handed pitchers who frequently targeted the outer-half of the plate. Likewise, another facet of his game that gradually worsened was his ability to turn on a baseball – this skill slowly eroded almost completely in his final season in Milwaukee.

Shortly after the Twins acquired him, I spoke with Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony who said that hitting coach Joe Vavra had seen the same thing – that he was barring out which led to a longer swing. The club went to work making some adjustments to his swing in spring camp. When he emerged, he had an overhauled swing.

Said Hardy last April:
“I shortened up my swing; my stance is a lot different. My hands aren't as far away from my body as they were in '09, which makes it a lot easier to get to the ball. It was a full year of creating bad habits, and it's taken some time to get rid of them, but I feel like I'm on the right path." 
While it may have been easier to “get to the ball” as evidence by his reduced strikeout rate (from 18.3% in ’09 to 14.4% in ’10) and increased contact rate (from 80.4% in ’09 to 85.5% in ’10), the power never manifested as his isolated power actually dropped in his move from Wisconsin (from .128 to .126). What’s more is that Hardy experienced a 4-year low in pulling the ball and for power:

% of Pitches Pulled
Slg% on Pulled Pitches

Without question, plenty of his power potential and wrist quickness was drained when he jammed his wrist in May. After returning at the end of the month with minimal offensive production, Hardy sat out the majority of June and came back with some pop in July, finishing the season hitting .302/.356/.436 over his final 227 plate appearances. Ignoring his late-season breakout and fixating on the shortcomings that paled in comparison (not to mention his growing salary), the Twins flipped Hardy to Baltimore for a pair of marginal bullpen arms.

Now, following a brief flare-up this spring, Hardy says his wrist in 100%.  Given that his output has put him on pace to have his best season at the plate since 2008 -- including 24 home runs up through Monday night – I tend to agree.

Part of the reason he has put up such impressive power numbers is that he has thrived when pulling the ball: he’s pulled almost half of his pitches to left (48.5%) and has his best slugging percentage that direction since ’08 (.907).

Look at Hardy’s home run-to-swinging strike chart from 2010 below. (Remember that these pitch f/x charts are shown from a catcher’s perspective so a right-handed batter would be on the LEFT side of the chart.) Here we see that only one of his six home runs (the green dots) came on pitches on the inner-half of the plate while the rest of his bombs came on pitches middle-away:

In comparison Hardy has been decimating pitches thrown inside this year:

Although factors such as a clean bill of health and hitter-friendlier ballpark have aided in his resurgence, Hardy has also made a slight change to his stance that is helping him exploit pitches on the inner-half better. As mentioned above, Hardy and the Twins worked diligently on getting him to keep his hands closer to his body – which offers better bat control – but it came at the expense of power. Once he got to Baltimore Hardy ditched the 2010 stance and has extended his arms while lowering them slightly:

The changes have provided Hardy with the ability to muscle it into the left field seats.

Hardy’s success in Baltimore has made me think a bit about the Twins’ teaching methods. The Twins appeared to have given Hardy a makeover that led to a decreased ability to pull the ball. While this could have been a byproduct of his wrist injury, it would not surprise me to find out that the team was trying to rid Hardy of that habit. Clearly, the Twins are advocates for using the whole field – something that they have tried to pound into Danny Valencia for much of the season when he grew pull-happy. Before him it was David Ortiz. So was a part of Hardy’s offensive re-education while in Minnesota an attempt to get him to conform to the team’s “whole field” mentality?

Hardy may never have thrived with the Twins this season like he would have in Baltimore. In addition to a less forgiving stadium in Target Field, based on the team’s insistence on contact over power, Hardy may have been spreading his hits out more rather than into the seats in left field. He may have continued to work with his hands closer to his body rather than moving them out and generating the pop he has with the Orioles.

Whatever the case or lesson here may be, Hardy’s healing and minor correction in his stance has converted the almost-non-tendered shortstop to a surefire AL Comeback Player of the Year winner.