While Hardy's clout has evaporated in 2014, he's still providing adequate production at the plate. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

J.J. Hardy is hitting well, without power

After 2014, Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy will be a free agent. The team had talked with him about an extension in the offseason, but the negotiations ended with Spring Training. At this point, it seems inevitable that he’ll hit the market, and when he does, teams should know what they’re paying for. He has always been an asset with the glove, as he has saved an average of eight defensive runs per year in his career; in 2014, that trend has continued, to the tune of 5 DRS. It’s his bat that is so intriguing, because of how he has accrued value with it in the past, and because of how he does so now.

First, some background. Like most shortstops, Hardy’s offense doesn’t blow anyone away — his career OPS+ sits at a middling 96. Moreover, unlike his work in the field, which has stayed steady throughout his tenure in the show (he has cost his team defensive runs in only one of his ten seasons), his competence at the plate has vacillated wildly, ranging from OPS+s above 110 in 2008 and 2011 to sub-80 OPS+s in 2006 and 2009.

So how well has Hardy hit this season? His power — on which he had heretofore predicated much of his prosperity — is nonextant in 2014. His ISO currently lies at .078; not only does that rank 155th in the majors, it’s the worst of his career by far — his next-lowest was .126 in 2010. Superb analysis has proven that this is no fluke: An increase in popups and a decrease in fly ball distance have colluded to Ichiro-ify him. Coupled with worse walk and strikeout rates than in years past, you would think Hardy has hit terribly thus far.

Funny story. Even with everything going against him, his present OPS+ of 92 lines up pretty well with his career norm. One thing has caused this surprising mediocrity: batting average on balls in play. Take a gander at Hardy’s BABIP by year:

2005 .262
2006 .257
2007 .279
2008 .305
2009 .260
2010 .299
2011 .273
2012 .253
2013 .263
2014 .340

Aside from ephemeral gains in 2008 and 2010, a low BABIP characterized Hardy’s first nine campaigns; out of 521 qualified batters over that period, his .273 mark ranked 468th. This year, however, he’s kicked it up a notch, with a .340 BABIP that’s 24th in all of baseball. This uptick has amplified his triple-slash to .293/.318/.371, as opposed to .260/.312/.428 prior. Since BABIP oscillates a lot, we’ll need to look deeper into the underlying causes to see if we can take this seriously.

Line drives become hits much more often than ground balls, which become hits much more often than fly balls. Hence, if a hitter wants to maintain a high BABIP, he should hit more liners and grounders, and eschew the air whenever possible. Hardy doesn’t fit this profile, as his batted-ball rates in 2014, for the most part, have yet to diverge from his established baseline:

Year LD% GB% FB%
2005 21.1% 43.2% 35.7%
2006 19.0% 46.7% 34.3%
2007 17.2% 41.1% 41.7%
2008 15.5% 48.4% 36.1%
2009 13.9% 46.4% 39.8%
2010 16.9% 49.3% 33.8%
2011 16.4% 40.2% 43.4%
2012 16.9% 43.3% 39.7%
2013 16.6% 45.2% 38.2%
2014 18.1% 43.5% 38.3%

Considering that the MLB-wide line drive rate usually hovers around 20%, we realize that Hardy has always been subpar in that regard, and more importantly, that 2014 hasn’t brought a significant digression.

Of course, hitting line drives doesn’t suffice if they don’t fall in for hits. Digging a little deeper, we see that Hardy’s BABIPs on each type of batter ball haven’t remained as steady:

2005 .574 .245 .085
2006 .650 .265 .000
2007 .670 .272 .105
2008 .806 .281 .095
2009 .761 .240 .091
2010 .755 .245 .141
2011 .638 .266 .128
2012 .660 .245 .065
2013 .648 .251 .090
2014 .800 .361 .086

Hardy’s fly ball efficacy hasn’t changed much, and while he has accumulated more hits on line drives, the fact that they comprise such a small chunk of his overall output means that we probably shouldn’t attribute his improvement to them. Ground balls seem to be responsible for his 2014 explosion, as they have had the right combination of quantity and quality to pump up his BABIP. Indeed, if we regress Hardy’s GB BABIP to .257 (his average from 2005 to 2013), his overall BABIP plummets to .291.

For the major leagues as a whole, fielders will fail to convert around 23% of ground balls into outs, which is to say, the MLB GB BABIP has remained in the .230s for pretty much every year of batted-ball data’s existence. Hardy has always had a higher success rate on worm burners than his colleagues, but this year, he has taken that to a whole new level; among hitters with enough plate appearances, only Marcell Ozuna and Yasiel Puig can top that .361 figure.

So now we’ve determined that ground balls have led to Hardy’s BABIP surge. Has he altered his approach to make his grounders harder to field? He still pulls most of them — look at the percentage of grounders he’s hit to each section of the diamond:

Year Left_GB% Center_GB% Right_GB%
2005 49.8% 35.5% 14.7%
2006 63.3% 25.4% 11.3%
2007 56.9% 35.0% 8.1%
2008 61.5% 30.1% 8.4%
2009 50.6% 39.1% 10.3%
2010 55.7% 34.6% 9.7%
2011 58.6% 31.3% 10.2%
2012 56.3% 35.0% 8.8%
2013 51.9% 35.7% 12.4%
2014 56.4% 30.1% 13.6%

Hardy’s distribution in 2014 seems pretty similar to other years. He hasn’t transformed into an opposite-field hitter — for some reason, Hardy has simply piled up more hits on balls hit to left:

2005 .309 .287 .147
2006 .344 .207 .000
2007 .302 .265 .207
2008 .339 .304 .328
2009 .270 .325 .227
2010 .303 .280 .281
2011 .257 .261 .180
2012 .314 .230 .267
2013 .309 .272 .236
2014 .404 .285 .236

Hardy used to have a low average on pulled grounders; he doesn’t anymore. With little to no evidence to substantiate this shift, though, I’ll have to chalk this up to an early-season fluke.

Hardy’s power has vanished, his plate discipline is as terrible as ever, and this newfound excellence on balls in play should disappear too. He better hope the market values defense, because he won’t contribute much on offense if this holds up.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, as of Saturday, July 5th, 2014.

Tags: Baltimore Orioles