Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.
Blaine Hardy was knocking around the Royals organization for several seasons with varying degrees of success. Then he was whacked in 2012 and set free as the Royals likely noticed they had a surplus of bullpen types floating in their system waiting for an opportunity in Kansas City.
We can't know how Hardy felt when this occurred but it ended up being a great boost to his career prospects. He ended up signing with the Tigers organization and posting a very solid campaign in 2013 in Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. For a team that features beleaguered bullpens at the major league level, this put Hardy on the radar for a possible call-up in 2014.
Sure enough, the Tigers made the call. Phil Coke was struggling badly, Ian Krol wasn't any great shakes, and there wasn't anyone else breaking down the door looking for a shot to occupy a southpaw relief gig in Detroit. Hardy was off to a fine start in Toledo and on June 16th, Hardy was making his major league debut with a scoreless two inning stint against his original organization, the Royals.
Hardy would remain with the Tigers for the majority of the season from that point and at times was a very reliable presence for a bullpen that didn't bump up against the word "reliable" very often. Hardy appeared in 38 games with a spiffy 2.54 ERA (FIP 3.49).
Perhaps Hardy's most impressive moment came in a loss. On August 10 in Toronto, Hardy entered what would end up being the 19-inning marathon loss to the Blue Jays. Hardy gamely held the Jays scoreless for three innings allowing one walk and nary a hit.
There was no question that most Tigers fans didn't feel too anxious when Hardy entered a game for the first two and a half months he was in Detroit. He was looking solid overall until September. Then in the heat of the drive for a division title, Hardy fell a bit out of favor.
He did it to himself and it stemmed from a common curse for relief pitchers. The base on balls. Hardy walked the first man he faced a couple of times down the stretch, always a no-no, and saw his walk-rate shoot up in general down the stretch. He would end up issuing a free pass in six of the nine appearances in September and only pitched five innings total in those games.
Hardy helped the Tigers overall in 2014. The "looking back" part of this exercise is about rating a players contribution in 2014 and how they performed in relation to expectations. My expectations for Hardy based on my limited knowledge of him other than minor league stats were muted. "Generic minor league lefty" was about it. Looking back he gets a small bump to "generic major league lefty", thus the C+. He surpassed expectations.
Through September 1, he was surpassing those expectations by a fair amount based on his results more than his peripheral stats. Unfortunately he didn't have the juice to make it to the finish line as many would have liked. This scales back the grade.
Hardy is a low-octane reliever. A heater that averages 89 mph and strikeout percentage of merely 18.6 percent. That strikeout rate for a late inning reliever is nothing to get encouraged about in today's high-K environment around MLB. It certainly looks less encouraging when coupled with Hardy's walk rate of 12.0 percent. Walks have always been a bit of Hardy's issue in the minors. He was able to pitch around it for a while in Detroit, but it caught up with him late in the year and moving forward will be his challenge.
This could easily wind up being the best major league season of Blaine Hardy's career ... if so, it was solid and he can take heart in it. If he wants to make a long career in MLB, he'll need to find a way to cut the walks and put away a few more hitters on strikes. Easier said than done. Hardy's solid groundball rate of 52.2 percent does play well however and should be key in his holding on to a major league job.
Should the Tigers bring Hardy back and give him a chance? Certainly. He showed some moxy at times to get the job done. He had long enough stretch of success to warrant another look.
But he's a "middle of the road" guy with just above pedestrian stuff. He's the kind of guy you need to challenge yourself to improve upon if you're Dave Dombrowski. If Hardy is your seventh man in the bullpen or sitting in Toledo as depth, that's probably okay. If he's your first or second lefty in big spots, you're probably not making the bullpen improvements many are hoping to see moving forward.