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Tigers' Blaine Hardy could be even better in 2016

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After two underrated seasons in the Tigers' bullpen, a simple tweak could make Hardy even tougher to hit next year.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Admit it, you've had the thought: Blaine Hardy shouldn't be this good. He barely scrapes 90 miles per hour on the radar gun with his fastball. He doesn't have a wipeout slider or curveball. He doesn't utilize an extreme arm angle like Darren O'Day, one of the most sought-after free agents on the open market this winter. Hardy walks three batters per nine innings with a relatively meager strikeout rate, and he gives up a lot of hard contact. Every advanced statistic in the book screams "meh." How in the world, then, does he end up with a 3.08 ERA in 61 1/3 innings of work in 2015?

The answer, surprisingly, rests in his fastball.

One would think that leaving a high-80s fastball in the middle of the strike zone would result in disaster (hell, look at the rest of the bullpen). However, opponents hit just .233 with a .308 slugging average off of Hardy's four-seam fastball in 2015, a meager .070 isolated power (ISO). Only Hardy's curveball was a better pitch in terms of batting average allowed, but he threw it roughly half as often and mostly in two-strike counts. The results were similar in 2014, when opponents hit .233 and slugged .326 off his four-seamer.

What makes it such a great pitch?

Hardy stands at six feet, two inches tall, an average height for most MLB pitchers. However, Hardy was able to generate an extra four inches of extension on his fastball release point than the average MLB pitcher. His release point isn't exceptionally high for his size, so it's probably safe to assume that Hardy takes a longer than average stride in his delivery.

The ball may not be released higher than normal, but it is being released slightly closer to home plate than average, leading to above-average extension. This extra four inches of extension results in the ball arriving at home plate quicker than the batter expects, a phenomenon known as perceived velocity. Theoretically, Hardy's 89 mile-per-hour fastball may look like 90-91 miles per hour to the hitter, giving them slightly less time to react to the pitch.

This hasn't shown up in the numbers yet, though. Statcast only gives Hardy credit for an extra 0.3 miles per hour on his fastball thanks to his extra extension, a difference in velocities that seems insignificant. However, with only 384 fastballs thrown in 2015 and just one year of Statcast numbers in place, it's possible that this difference in actual and perceived velocities magnifies over time. Opponents' meager numbers against the fastball suggest that this may be the case.

Player Avg Pitch Speed Avg Perceived Speed Avg Spin Rate Avg Extension
Hardy 88.76 mph 89.00 mph 2168 rpm 6.49 feet
MLB Average 92.90 mph 92.53 mph 2213 rpm 6.16 feet

Hardy's release point also helps him generate tons of vertical movement, or "lift." This does not mean that his fastball actually rises, as many mistakenly think. Instead, it means that Hardy's fastball has less vertical drop than most others due to gravity. His fastball spin rate was slightly lower than MLB average in 2015, but Hardy generated an average off 11.6 inches of vertical movement* on his fastball, much better than a typical fastball, which sits around nine inches. Hardy's fastball ranked 16th among all MLB pitchers (min. 10 innings) in terms of vertical movement in 2015.

This puts Hardy into some rare company. You may have heard about other pitchers with similar fastballs, such as Tampa's Jake Odorizzi or Toronto's Marco Estrada. Those pitchers, and others, have started to exploit this unique trait by throwing their fastballs at the top of the strike zone (and above) more often than before. It takes a hitter longer to adjust to a high fastball (a concept known as effective velocity), and fastballs with a lot of vertical movement are tough to get on top of. Because of this, pitchers like Estrada and Odorizzi generate very high pop-up rates.

Hardy does not deviate toward the top of the strike zone as often as those pitchers. He works up and away against righties, but generally mixes his fastball around the zone.

Blaine Hardy fastball

Despite the relatively normal pitch distribution, Hardy induced an inordinate number of swings and misses on his fastball. Hardy's four-seamer has generated a solid 18.6 percent whiff rate in his two MLB seasons, but the location of those swings and misses was very clear.

Blaine Hardy whiff rate

If Hardy were to start throwing his fastball higher in the zone, a la Estrada, Odorizzi, or Kansas City's Chris Young, he may start generating even more swings and misses. The high fastball will also help change the eye level of opposing hitters, and the difference in effective velocity between his fastball and offspeed pitches will increase. Blaine Hardy, strikeout machine? It's not out of the question.

There is some caution to this suggestion, though. Pitchers that work at the top of the strike zone and allow more fly balls tend to give up more home runs. This isn't the end of the world for a starting pitcher, but is problematic for a reliever like Hardy, who often enters the game with runners on base. One mistake in a situation like that could mean the difference between a win and a loss. Considering Hardy's stellar home run rate and solid overall results in the past two seasons, it may not be worth making wholesale changes to his approach and pitch sequencing.

*All PitchFX movements are plotted on X and Y axes relative to the predicted path of a pitch with no spin. Theoretically, a perfect knuckleball would have zero inches of horizontal and vertical movement, according to PitchFX.