Daniel Moroz: Longball at center of Hardy’s renaissance

J.J. Hardy is having a very good offensive season. He is, in fact, having the best offensive season of his career. And that’s coming entirely from one factor. Not more walks (he’s doing worse than his career numbers) or fewer strike-outs (he’s doing worse than his career numbers) or more hits when he puts the ball into play (he’s doing worse than his career numbers). It’s the longball.

Hardy’s 26 home runs already tie a career high (in only 102 games, no less), and there’s a good chance he’ll hit the 30 home run mark at some point this season. This is as unexpected as who the homers are coming against: right-handed pitchers.

For his career, Hardy has a pretty typical platoon split. Coming into 2011, he hit .261/.310/.404 versus righties and .267/.349/.478 versus lefties. He hit a home run in 2.7 percent of his plate appearances versus same-side pitchers, while taking southpaws deep 3.9 percent of the time. This year, things are flipped around.

Hardy is not only hitting worse against lefties (.268/.330/.454) than against righties (.278/.315/.536), but he’s hitting worse against lefties than he did coming into the season. Against righties, Hardy is destroying the ball; 22 of his 26 home runs have come against right-handers and he’s taking them deep at over twice his previous rate (6.3 percent of his plate appearances) while against lefties things are about the same as before (4.1 percent).

Part of the reason for this may be that righties are leaving the ball up and in to Hardy a little more often than lefties are, and that appears to be J.J.’s happy zone. Virtually every pitch he’s hit out against a right-handed pitcher has been thigh-high or above and middle in, whereas the four he has off of lefties are either down or away. So it makes sense that those high and tight pitches are the ones he tends to swing at more, while eschewing the outside corner offerings.

Looking at all the pitches Hardy has seen this year, around 27 percent of the pitches from righties have been up and in while only around 17 percent from lefties are in the same zone. The difference is similarly drastic if you look at just the proportion of fastballs that end up in that area (and those are some of Hardy’s favorite pitches).

The same kind of disparity was in action in 2010 (though to slightly lesser degree), and Hardy did hit five of his six homers against righties. And even less so in 2009, though 10 of 11 homers came against righties. That means that for 2005-2008 Hardy hit 38 home runs versus right-handers and 26 versus left-handers (in many fewer at bats, of course). Since then, he’s hit 36 against righties (most of them this year, obviously) and only six against lefties.

So it appears that’s what happened when Hardy suddenly stopped hitting well versus lefties (whom he used to destroy). This year, he’s picked things up overall, but especially against lefties. Here are platoon split stats for him through the years (it’s weighted runs created compared to league average (wRC+), but don’t worry about that - the point is that over 100 is better than average and less than 100 is below average):

Year    LHP   RHP
2005   118     73
2006   142     50
2007   143     87
2008   154     99
2009    55     81
2010    67    106
2011   111    126

He crushed lefties, hung in there against righties (he only had 139 total plate appearances in 2006) and then the switch after 2008. It hasn’t had a massive effect on his career number due to all the time he’s missed the last couple seasons, but there’s been a definite shift. This may have been due (at least in part) to a mechanical issue with his swing, noted by Alex Eisenberg, that the O’s appear to have fixed (which resulted in the overall improvement, if not a reversion back to a normal platoon split).

The only worry I have with this is that pitchers may eventually adjust so that Hardy sees more stuff out away from him, which would eat into his power numbers against righties (lefties seem to have already gotten the memo). Still, if his splits even out, but his production against left-handers doesn’t drop off too far, then you’ve still got an above-average bat attached to a pretty good glove on a shortstop, which is none too shabby.

Daniel Moroz blogs about the Orioles for Camden Crazies and joins MASNsports.com as part of our season-long initiative to welcome guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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