Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hard Times for J.J. Hardy

J.J. Hardy's best game as a Minnesota Twin was, ironically, the one that has largely ruined his 2010 season.

On May 4, the Twins were facing the Tigers at Target Field in a key divisional match-up. The game was tied at three in the top of the ninth, and the Tigers had Alex Avila on second base representing the go-ahead run with two outs. Ramon Santiago tapped a grounder to the hole between short and third, and initially it appeared that the ball would easily roll into left field for an RBI single that would put the Tigers in front. Avila lowered his head and charged around third, determined to beat Delmon Young's throw to the plate.

Yet, the ball never got to Young. Hardy flashed his amazing range, sprinting and diving to his right to stop the ball. Avila realized too late that the grounder had been fielded in the infield, and by the time he slammed on the brakes in an effort to get back to third, Hardy had already delivered the ball to Nick Punto, who slapped a tag on Avila to end the inning.

In the bottom half of the ninth, Hardy delivered a one-out triple off the center field wall, setting himself up to score the winning run on a wild pitch in the subsequent at-bat. With his outstanding defense and considerable power -- the two strengths that led the Twins to trade Carlos Gomez for him during the offseason -- Hardy had single-handedly turned a loss to a win.

We'd learn a couple days later, however, that Hardy had hurt his wrist while sliding into third base on that game-breaking triple. And what initially seemed like a minor hurdle has transformed into a debilitating issue for Hardy, resulting in two separate disabled list stints and multiple cortisone shots while likely contributing to a punchless .186 average when he's been able to get into the lineup since that date.

When looking at Hardy's overall hitting line this year -- .226/.268/.340 with just three home runs and 14 RBI -- there's a temptation to declare him finished as an offensive threat. After all, Hardy posted similarly ugly numbers in Milwaukee last year, and clearly the Brewers had lost faith in him considering that they were willing to deal the one-time elite power-hitting shortstop for a relatively modest return. Yet, it's unfair to judge Hardy based on his first half this year. He's historically always been a slow starter, and while that May 4 performance is the kind of confidence-builder that can often get a struggling hitter on track, it instead resulted in an injury that effectively shelved Hardy for two full months.

Now, though, Hardy finally appears to be back at full strength. He's hit .286 since coming off the DL earlier this month, and while he still hasn't homered since April 23, it does seem like he's finally starting to hit the ball with some authority again. Hardy's strikeout rate is down this year, so it's not like he's looked completely lost at the plate. If his wrist is fully healthy, we can expect his .252 batting average on balls in play and 6.8 HR/FB ratio (both well below his career averages) to both rise in the second half, leading to much better offensive production.

Without a doubt, the Twins have been scoring fewer runs than expected in recent weeks. Yet, I don't expect the front office to make any moves at the deadline to improve the team's offense, because they've got all the talent they need in-house. They just need a number of players to step up in the second half, and Hardy is at the top of that list.


Bryz said...

I saw several people at times complain about Hardy's offense this year, but it seemed like they would ignore the fact that his wrist was still bothering him. Also, after that May 4th game, Hardy was batting .250/.299/.400, which looks much better than his season-low .217/.265/.333 and current .226/.268/.340 line. Hardy should continue to improve offensively after a few more weeks of healthy play.

thanatoschristou said...

Well said bryz. I think part of what is going against Hardy is that Punto is an offensive liability as well. Having two in the lineup at the same time is brutal. Since we all knew what we we had in Punto its natural for fans to rail on HArdy.