What’s Blaine Hardy’s Purpose in 2015?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

As we discussed last week, aside from the bullpen, the Tigers 2015 is likely a finished product. The bullpen probably won’t get a ton of new faces either, but the degree to which the in house guys are leaned upon is still very much an open question. We know who will be there, but it’s not yet clear who will be where. One of the most critical determinations the club will need to make is how good Blaine Hardy really is.

Hardy was a 22nd round pick by the Royals back in 2008 and came to the Tigers prior to the 2013 season. He’ll be 28 by Opening Day and made his MLB debut last June with two innings against those same Royals. Hardy doesn’t throw hard, he was never heralded, and he didn’t debut until he was 27. These are the kinds of players who rarely wind up getting asked to get key outs in the big leagues, but the Tigers bullpen is the Tigers bullpen and here we are. What comes next for Hardy?

The sum of his 2014 season was solid. He sported a 2.54 ERA and 3.49 FIP over 39 innings. He got a ton of ground balls and hardly allowed any extra base hits (just 4 to 167 batters). He walked too many (12%), but everything else went well (.277 wOBA against) and held runners nicely.

By all accounts, it was a very nice 39 innings. Looking at his ERA, he was an elite arm. At his FIP? Just solid. But you take either in the Tigers pen all day.

How much of that 2014 can we expect to continue into 2015 and how much was just a run of good timing and good fortune?

In a very basic sense, his fielding independent numbers forecast worse performance going forward. He walked a lot of guys and his HR/FB% was lower than anyone can reasonably expect. It’s very plausible that he can limit extra base hits, but it’s almost certainly impossible for him to maintain a HR/FB% under 4%.

Let’s play with some numbers for a moment. Let’s say his 18.6% strikeout rate is legit. Let’s say his 12% walk rate will come down to his minor league career rate of 8%. Let’s say his 52% ground ball rate is real, but let’s pull him up to a 9% HR/FB. Let’s throw this together and say he faces 250 batters or so in 60 innings of work. That’s something in the 3.60 range, which isn’t bad!

Essentially, you’re talking about a guy who might wind up around average for a reliever. So much of his success last year was limiting extra base hits, especially home runs. Essentially, the only way to be really good with a strikeout and walk rate close to his 2014 mark or his minor league numbers is to do so while limiting power in a big way. That requires a big ground ball rate and a better than average HR/FB.

That’s the whole ballgame for Hardy. Can he do it?

In the bigs, he allowed a .277 wOBA and a .233/.331/.280 slash line. That’s a .047 ISO. There’s no good place to get minor league slash lines dating back to 2008, but we can go back to 2011 on Minor League Central (Disclaimer: This data may be imperfect). Hardy’s minor league marks from 2011-2014 sit at .236/.312/.376. That’s a very nice, above average line, but it’s a .140 ISO and that’s a totally different tier than a .047 ISO. It’s not even close.

If we look to his batted ball data (again, disclaimer) he got way more ground balls in the majors than he did in the minors, and more fly balls means more extra base hits and homers. He was worse against lefties in the minors, oddly, but his MLB platoon split is normal and not particularly large. He walked a lot more righties, but he didn’t get clobbered by them to the tune of much more power.

So the only hope for a brand new Blaine Hardy is that he did something with his pitch arsenal this year that changed his batted ball profile and the ability for hitters to tag him for extra bases.

Hitters make plenty of contact against his fastball and they get it in the air pretty often (39% ground ball rate) but they slugged just .304 against it. That looks like a red flag. Unless that’s a ton of weak fly balls to shallow parts of the park, that’s the kind of thing you expect to balance out into worse results come 2015.

His cutter and change allowed pretty average damage (more contact on the cutter, but more damage on contact against the change), but the curveball was his money pitch. He got lots of swinging strikes, an insane 91% ground ball rate, and a .151 wOBA against.

So it all hinges on that. We probably won’t see a 90% ground ball rate again, but if it is legitimately going to allow him to induce a ton of grounders and no hard contact, it could really help him limit the damage if mixed in properly. That’s always the tricky thing about analyzing pitching; so much of it is contingent on the ordering of the pitches. We can feel pretty good saying, based on our eyes and the results, that Hardy’s breaking ball was great in 2014.

We also know that his success was based almost exclusively on that pitch’s ability to get him out of tight spots. Is it because the pitch is so great or is it because he and Avila happened to call for it at just the right time in a couple of key instances? That’s why it’s so tricky to analyze relievers. There’s so little to go on, statistically and visually.

It’s a good enough pitch in my mind to say that I’m buying it as a weapon to limit the power against him, which might do something to keep his ERA/FIP/xFIP/whatever lower than that 4.17 xFIP he had in 2014.

But I’m not going to bank on a 2.50 ERA either. I’m guessing he winds up cutting the walks and giving back some of the home run prevention (but not all of it) in 2015. He’ll be solid, but not exceptional. There’s some talent there, but we’re talking about a guy who never didn’t anything to stand out in the minors and based his entire 2014 on preventing extra base hits. Will some of those fly outs become doubles and homers? I think so. They won’t all go that way and he’ll be an MLB-level arm, just not an elite, high leverage guy on the order of a 65 ERA- like he had in 2014.

It seems totally reasonable that he’ll wind up between 0-10% better than the average pitcher. Not great, but not worthless at all. All the more reason for the Tigers to have grabbed one of the really good relievers on the market earlier this offseason.

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