The Disappearance Of J.J. Hardy’s Power

Title: The Disappearance Of J.J. Hardy’s Power
Date: June 10, 2014
Original Source: Rotographs
Synopsis: This article looked at the surprising paucity of power in J.J. Hardy’s early-season profile, wondering if Hardy would eventually rebound or if he had legitimately lost some pop.

J.J. Hardy entered the season as the No. 14 shortstop on the consensus rankings, has ranked 28th in production to date and yet still ranks No. 15 on the latest shortstop consensus rankings. Obviously, then, there’s a fair amount of optimism that his slow start is going to turn around.

Because, well, yeah, Hardy has zero home runs to date despite having spent the last seven seasons as one of the more reliable power producers at the position. From 2007 to 2013, Hardy ranked fifth at the position in WAR, sixth in plate appearances, third in home runs, ninth in runs and fifth in RBI; the average and OBP were never great, but save for a down 2009-2010 pairing where he was limited by injuries (and a demotion), he’s been a rare and steady source of home runs and RBI at a position devoid of them.

And this year, he has gone deep exactly zero times, adding just 15 RBI in 222 plate appearances (he missed a handful of games with minor back and thigh ailments). So, what gives?

Obviously, if Hardy hasn’t hit a ball out yet, his HR/FB rate is zero. The lowest mark he’s ever posted in that regard is 6.1 percent, his career mark is 10.9 percent and his rate since going to Baltimore hasn’t been in single digits. That is to say, Hardy has firmly established himself to be, at worst, an average player for HR/FB rate.

The reason he’s able to post strong home run totals with an average HR/FB rate is because he’s a fly ball hitter – the league average since 2007 has ranged from 34 percent to 37.9 percent (it’s been 34.3 percent or lower since 2012, however), and Hardy has been solidly above average for most of that stretch. His career fly ball rate is 38.7 percent and even after it dipped from a peak of 43.4 percent in 2011, it hasn’t fallen below 38 percent since 2010. It’s presently 38 percent exactly, and his batted ball profile has changed little this season. In short, Hardy is still hitting the ball in the air as much as he’s accustomed to, they’re just not leaving the park.

This raises the question as to whether he’s getting unlucky, hitting the ball worse in the air or a combination of both.

Most notable in his batted ball profile is an increase in infield flies, up to a near-career high of 16.2 percent, well above his 13.2 percent career average and the 9.5 percent league average. Out of curiosity, I looked at the relationship between IFFB% and HR/FB% for player seasons since 2010 (minimum 400 plate appearances), with the thinking that infield flies may be indicative of worse contact being made, but the correlation was basically non-existent.
(There is a very small positive correlation [R2=.103] between fly ball rate and infield fly ball rate, for what it’s worth.)

We turn, then, to the distance on Hardy’s batted balls, courtesy of Baseball Heat Maps, and we see that Hardy’s batted ball distances are down appreciably this season, even controlling for the fact that it’s early in the year:

Season Distance Distance through June 9 HR/FB%
2011 275.00 274.42 15.7%
2012 269.33 274.63 10.0%
2013 273.50 275.70 12.4%
2014 257.65 257.65 0.0%
Average 270.95 270.60 11.3%

Hardy is hitting his non-ground balls about 13 feet shorter, on average, than he has over the past three seasons. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s the difference between names like Matt Joyce, Alex Rios and Jonny Gomes and names likeOmar Infante, Alcides Escobar and Emilio Bonifacio. Cherry-picked to make a point, sure, but even using Baseball Heat Maps’ “Expected Home Runs” tool, Hardy only shows as having “deserved” 0.17 home runs on the season, given his batted ball distribution. If you look at the hang-time on the balls he has hit far, you also see that they’ve more often been looping fly balls than lasers that come up just short.
All of that is to say, Hardy isn’t necessarily getting unlucky (in 2011, he was somewhat lucky, getting 2.7 “extra” home runs, but in 2012 and 2013 he was within a home run of expectations), but is just hitting the ball worse.

What appears to be the issue, at least in the early going, is that Hardy is no longer making good on high pitches or pitches on the inside part of the plate. Over the past three seasons, he’s crushed anything from the middle of the plate in, but this season he’s only been able to work with those pitches if they’ve been low in the zone.
Not only is Hardy not making good when he does get those pitches, the book appears to have long been out that Hardy isn’t going to do a lot of damage with pitches on the outer half. He had never been given a steady diet of inside stuff, but pitchers have worked him outside even more than usual in the early going (though the degree to which that’s true could certainly be chalked up as insignificant).
Putting all of this together – Hardy’s getting less on the inner half to hit, doing less with those pitches, and hitting the ball shorter distances – it’s easy to wonder if Hardy has lost some bat speed as he nears his 32nd birthday, or if there’s something mechanical going on. For his money, Hardy has no idea:

I’ve got no explanation. Yeah, obviously, it crosses my mind, but I try not to think about it as much as I can. Ever since the first week of the season when I hurt my back, I’ve been on a pretty strict back exercise. But I feel pretty good physically…I think the same approach, hits will keep coming. Honestly, whenever I’ve hit homers, it’s always come in bunches. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. I’m going to continue to try to put good at-bats together and get on base, and hopefully, the homers come.

Yeah, J.J., hopefully.

I GIF’d some swings but couldn’t notice a discernable difference (I’m hardly a swing doctor), and he doesn’t seem to be pulling off early or closing up his stance any. Maybe Hardy’s right that it’s just a prolonged home run slump, something he’s been somewhat prone to in the past. A good start to fixing it could be to get a bit more selectively aggressive – his O-Swing rate is up and O-Contact down, while his Z-Swing rate is down and Z-Contact steady, all while he’s getting more pitches in the zone than he’s used to.

In any case, Hardy remains an iffy starter in most formats but has enough of a track record that you can’t cut bait if you need a MI spot or are in a deeper league. Steamer and ZiPS both like him for 11 home runs and 40-plus RBI the rest of the way, and it’s hard not to trust the track record, even if he has been hitting the ball poorly through two months. Just stick with him knowing that the “gambler’s fallacy” isn’t going to come through here, and there’s nothing indicating that Hardy is “due” for a big surge. He’s just not hitting the ball well.

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