June 16 will mark the one-year anniversary of the debut of Blaine Hardy. He went two innings in an 11-8 loss to the Kansas City Royals, striking out two and keep the Royals off the board. Hardy was able to provide relief to a bullpen that desperately needed it. Despite missing the first two months, the rookie was second to Joba Chamberlain in bullpen fWAR on the team. His 2.54 ERA seemed to fly under the radar at times. Well, it's year two for Hardy, and he's pitching better than before.
The season could not have started out worse for Hardy. In his first four appearances, he gave up seven runs in 6-2/3 innings. It appeared as though he was the next in a long line of pitchers that Dave Dombrowski has found that provide one year of solid contributions before slowly fading out.
Since then, Hardy has been a force. In his past 20 appearances, spanning 17 and two thirds innings, he's allowed just one earned run. He's struck out 15 while walking just four over that span, good for a FIP of 2.03 during that stretch. In fact, Hardy has catapulted to the top of the Tigers' fWAR leaderboards (not counting that one time Alex Wilson started a game). He's been one of the best on the team over the last month.
What, exactly, is fueling Hardy's production? Mostly, it comes down to him not giving up any home runs this year. There's a definite small sample disclaimer there especially after 24 innings, but he also only gave up three in 86 total innings last year (one in the MLB, two in Triple-A). Just three home runs in over 110 innings is a good sign, although home run rates take longer to stabilize.
On top of his excellent home run rate and improving strikeout-to-walk profiles, Hardy has rated very highly in context-dependent situations. He's second on the team to closer Joakim Soria in WPA and third behind Soria and Alex Wilson in RE24. He has four "shutdown" performances on the year (where he adds at least 0.05 to Win Probability of the team) against just one "meltdown" (losing at least 0.05 from the Win Probability). By all measures, Hardy has been an excellent, reliable arm.
So why is it that Hardy is the forgotten member of the bullpen? Per the Fangraphs Leverage Index, Hardy is tied for fifth in the bullpen in average leverage index, behind Soria, Joba Chamberlain, Angel Nesbitt, and Tom Gorzelanny. Manager Brad Ausmus has shown a timidity to go with the young lefty in close situations to gain the platoon advantage in spite of Hardy's complete dominance against same-side hitters: batters have managed just a .186/.255/.214 line from the left side against him thus far.
Ausmus has done a good job taking advantage of those numbers when Hardy enters the game, which is why he has faced almost an identical number of right-handed versus left-handed pitching. However, Ausmus had shied away from allowing him to take on opportunities to hold leads or ties where they are, instead entrusting the struggling Tom Gorzelanny.
Fast forward to Tuesday night. Detroit was leading 6-0 in the eighth inning when Anibal Sanchez loaded the bases. With two outs it was clear Sanchez was done, and Ausmus signaled to the bullpen. With the power-hitting lefty Miguel Montero due up, Ausmus called on not Hardy, but the right-handed Joba Chamberlain -- the same Chamberlain who has allowed a .310/.321/.464 line to lefties this year. Chamberlain got Montero to chase on a 3-2 pitch, and Detroit dodged a bullet, but still, the Tigers' best option was relegated to the bench when the opportunity arose.
On Wednesday night, the call to the bullpen was once again made in the seventh. Detroit had just cut the gap in the half against the Cubs and only trailed by three. Hardy had not pitched in five days and was an option to keep the game close. Instead, Ausmus went to Nesbitt, who was once again shelled, then Tom Gorzelanny, who walked Dexter Fowler before giving up a hit to the left-handed Anthony Rizzo. The real kicker, however, is that Al Alburquerque was the next man up. Against Montero, Alburquerque gave up a home run that may still be flying. It was only after all others had tried and failed that Ausmus called upon Hardy, who pitched an easy ninth. The trust Ausmus has put in Nesbitt and Gorzelanny failed in this scenario
It's time for Ausmus to give Hardy the chance to protect leads at the expense of floundering options like Nesbitt and Gorzelanny. Brad Ausmus needs to take this step to maximize his bullpen's effectiveness.