Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Will JJ Hardy Bounce Back?

Since the Twins acquired JJ Hardy from the Milwaukee Brewers in November, the general consensus seems to be that last year was a fluke for Hardy and he should return to his 2007 + 2008 form. Hardy dealt with a pretty brutal wrist injury last year, which undoubtedly hurt his play, but I wondered if there were any troubling signs statistically that would suggest another down year for the Twins new shortstop.

In 2007, as a 24-year-old, Hardy hit .277/.323/.463, with 26 home runs. His strike out rate was a respectable 11%, although his walk rate was just 6.3%. His K:BB ratio was a not-so-great 1.83. His inability to draw many walks was the biggest reason for his sub-par .323 on base percentage, but his power made him an above average offensive player in 2007.

In 2008, as a 25-year-old, Hardy hit .283/.343/.478, with 24 home runs. His numbers improved, although it really was more luck than anything. Hardy's strikeout rate increased from 11.4% to 15.6%. After striking out once every 8 at bats in 2007, Hardy struck out once every 5.8 at bats in 2008. The only positive was that his walk rate also increased, up to 8.3%. However, his strikeout rate increased more, and his K:BB ratio jumped to 1.88. So how did he have a more productive season? I said he got lucky because that's precisely what happened. His batting average on balls in play was a ridiculous .305, after posting a .279 average on balls in play in 2007. Basically, Hardy was able to get more balls to drop in 2008 than he did in 2007.

If the improved 2008 season was mostly luck, 2009 evened the score as Hardy fell victim to a lot of bad luck. His struggles weren't entirely because of bad luck, as you'll see some frightening trends, but he never should have hit as poorly as he did last year. Hardy hit .229/.302/.357 with just 11 home runs, although he did get 37% less at bats in 2009 than he did in 2008. That was because of his own struggles, as well as the emergence of Alcides Escobar in Milwaukee.

Hardy continued to trend in the wrong direction in the important categories. His strikeout rate increased again, from 15.6% to 18.3%. His at-bats per strikeout obviously decreased, from 5.8 to 4.9, but it was encouraging to see his walk rate improve as well. It only jumped to 9.3%, so his K:BB ratio again moved in the wrong direction, to 1.98 last year. However, despite the downward trend these statistics are on, his 2009 season should not have been markedly worse than 2007. So why was it so much worse? His power ultimately disappeared, which I feel safe blaming on his wrist injury. If his wrist is indeed healthy, his power should return to the 2007 or 2008 form. The biggest reason Hardy struggled though was because after hitting .305 on balls in play in 2008, he hit just .260 in 2009. His career average on balls in play is .279, so if he returns to that number in 2010, he should see an increase in both his on-base percentage and batting average.

There are certainly some reasons to be worried about Hardy's ability to bounce back this season, but I think if his wrist is healthy and he doesn't have as much bad luck as he did last year on balls in play, the Twins should be looking at a .275/.330/.470 season from their shortstop, with above average defense. That's a major upgrade over what they had there last year, even after the Orlando Cabrera trade. Let's simply hope Hardy is healthy, because his production could go a long ways towards deciding the Twins fate this coming season.