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2017 Tigers player preview: What is the best spot for Blaine Hardy?

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The left-hander was relegated to low leverage situations when with Detroit in 2016.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Blaine Hardy has never been the flashiest reliever out of the Detroit Tigers bullpen, but he has been a reliable option over his 129 appearances the past three seasons. Since joining the majors in 2014, Hardy has been in the top three in innings pitched by a left-handed reliever for the Tigers and ranks second in overall appearances during that span.

The lefty entered 2016 coming off of a solid year where he pitched over 60 innings with a 3.08 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. Expectations were still within reason, especially after some spring injury bouts, but Hardy had proven himself over his first two seasons and earned his place as a situational lefty in the Tigers’ bullpen.

One big move the Tigers made following the 2015 season was the acquisition of Justin Wilson from the Yankees, a left-handed reliever with a very promising future. Wilson immediately assumed a significant role in the bullpen, causing the other relievers to slide down the pecking order. This was especially felt by Hardy, who was competing for the key lefty spots.

Though the addition of Wilson was not the only factor, Hardy’s 2016 was muted compared to the previous season. He only appeared in 21 games — less than his 32 games in Triple-A Toledo — and recorded his highest ERA, FIP, and WHIP to date. While his numbers were still decent, Hardy’s impact was much more limited than in his first two years.

Season gmLI DET rank LHP rank
Season gmLI DET rank LHP rank
2014 0.93 6 2
2015 1.17 5 1
2016 0.54 10 3

Perhaps the best way to describe Hardy’s decrease in responsibility is by looking at his leverage index over his three seasons in Detroit. The above table shows Fangraph’s gmLI statistic, which shows a pitcher’s average leverage index when entering a game. Leverage index looks to quantify the importance and volatility of game situations and has an average of one; thus, a gmLI above one implies that a pitcher is typically used in higher pressure situations, while a gmLI below one implies the opposite.

Hardy’s leverage index is pretty telling. After recording values around and above one during his first two years, his leverage index took a sharp drop in 2016. This shows that manager Brad Ausmus was less interested in using Hardy in tougher situations last season and preferred to deploy him in lower pressure instances.

This is seen in Hardy’s leverage index ranks as well. After being one of the more important relievers in the Tigers bullpen in both 2014 and 2015, he ranked near the bottom in high-pressure usage in 2016 among pitchers with at least 10 innings. Additionally, he was displaced not only by Wilson, but also Kyle Ryan in terms of southpaw priority.

When looking at Hardy’s 10-game rolling average for leverage index it becomes clear when this change came about. After his major-league debut, Hardy was used in medium-to-high leverage situations up until the end of last season. But from the start of last season and onward, this role was no longer his. By the end of 2016, he was rarely seeing important at bats and innings.

Most numbers agree with this shift in usage. His 3.51 ERA was in the better half of the Tigers bullpen last season, and was better than Wilson’s, but his 1.44 WHIP and 4.00 FIP were on the other side of the rankings. Hardy also ranked just eighth with -1.54 RE24, which means that he increased opponents’ run expectancy when he pitched over the course of the season.

Hardy didn’t perform poorly in 2016, but he wasn’t great either, and Ausmus was wise to use him sparingly. However, he still could be a valuable member of the bullpen and has a couple years of experience proving his worth. When Hardy was not with the Tigers, he was actually pitching pretty well in the minors; in 31-1/3 innings with the Mud Hens, he owned a 1.72 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and 2.95 FIP.

Using Hardy in lower-leverage situations against lefties may seem like a pigeon-holed role, but that might be the best place for him to succeed. Any argument to use him in a bigger spot must overcome stats like a 0.00 percent K-BB% rate against left-handers in 2016. Hardy can still be of use at a major-league level, but keeping him in low pressure scenarios is the smartest way to maximize his value to the team.