We thought we knew Blaine Hardy. A former Kansas City Royals farmhand who was released and then signed by the Detroit Tigers in 2013, he didn’t see the 25-man roster until 2014, when he was already 27-years-old. And for two seasons, he was pretty good in a mixed role out of the bullpen. Sometimes he was the designated lefty specialist. Sometimes he handled long relief. And occasionally he held leads in the seventh and eighth innings. He was a solid reliever, but after struggling badly in 2017, it looked like his time as an effective major leaguer was coming to an end. The Tigers released him during spring camp, and he returned to the fold only after going unclaimed by 29 other teams.
Yet somehow, Hardy has managed to reinvent himself as starting pitcher over the past two months, and saved the Tigers’ bacon with Jordan Zimmermann and Francisco Liriano on the disabled list. For a solid month now, he’s been the Tigers most effective starting pitcher. Hardy may return to the Tigers’ bullpen soon, but they’ve also discussed adding Hardy into a six-man rotation, at least for the time being. Before a decision is made, it’s worth examining what, if anything, explains this striking turn in his fortunes.
Blaine Hardy 2.0
Last year wasn’t kind to Mr. Hardy. In fact, by season’s end, it was worth considering how much of a future remained to him in the major leagues. In 33 1⁄3 innings of work, his FIP was 5.38. Most importantly, his HR/9 spiked from 0.70 in 2016, to a somewhat gruesome 1.89. His other peripheral numbers remained stable, but Hardy watched his flyball rate skyrocket and took regular damage from those shots leaving the ballpark. His formerly balanced splits took a hit as right-handers especially teed off on him for much of the season.
Yet so far this spring, Hardy has looked like a new man.
First of all, his walk rate is excellent, at 1.87 per nine innings. Despite a slightly diminished strikeout rate, Hardy’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is over 3-to-1, easily the best of his career. He holds a 3.32 ERA and a strong 3.67 FIP to back it up. The lowered walk rate has helped, but the biggest change has been in his home run rate, which now stands at a strong 0.83 per nine innings. He’s limited the long ball, and by reducing his walk rate, he’s limited the damage when he does give one up.
How did he do it?
And more importantly, can he keep it up? So far, Hardy appears to have found a way to yield to the trend toward more fly ball hitters without breaking. Suddenly Hardy lives on fly balls and sure thing pop-ups, instead of the grounders that once formed the basis for his effectiveness. It’s a dangerous profile, but as fly balls generally go for hits less often than liners and ground balls, the change has helped Hardy keep runners off the bases. As long as he can limit the home runs, he’s going to do just fine. However, that remains a difficult proposition to trust.
There’s no radical reinvention here, no velocity bump or marked change in his mechanics, but Hardy is showing some new elements to his game. The biggest change is in his improved command and perhaps better sequencing. Pitching coach Chris Bosio worked a lot on Hardy’s footwork this spring, trying to improve his balance, and there seem to be some gains there. He’s also followed Matthew Boyd’s lead and started varying his time to the plate, as well as trying to keep a relentless pace by getting back on the rubber ready to throw as quickly as possible after each pitch.
Hardy’s slider is the one piece of his repertoire than looks substantially different this season. Most sites call it a slider, but it should be noted that Statcast considers it a cut fastball averaging 82.9 mph. The line between slider, cutter or cut fastball has gotten very blurred in recent years especially, and because the pitch’s movement, velocity and spin rate fit best within a slider bandwidth, we’ll refer to it as such until Hardy corrects us.
Hardy made some adjustments to the pitch this spring. He’s throwing it with less velocity overall, and getting more of a sweeping, slurve style movement with improved depth as well. The change isn’t radical, but perhaps the impact is more in his ability to command it. It’s notable that Hardy has shown the ability to shape the pitch in on the back foot of right-handers this year. That’s a pitch he’s never seemed comfortable with.
In most of his time with the Tigers, Hardy has leaned on the curveball as his main breaking ball, throwing the slider about 15% of the time. This season, he’s upped that slider usage to a whopping 37.0%, while the curveball is barely a memory at 7.3%, and not terribly effective. He surrendered a home run to the White Sox Matt Davidson off the curveball in his last outing, and it was one of just a handful of hard-hit balls. His release with the slider seems to pair better with his fastball and changeup than the curveball does, and it’s allowing Hardy to throw three pitches out of the same window, increasing the deception and difficulty for hitters trying to pick up pitches out of his hand.
The slider isn’t exactly a whiff inducing breaking ball, and hitters are putting it in the air much more than on the ground. So far, the damage has been minimal on fly balls due to the weak contact, but if things go wrong, that’s were you’d expect to see Hardy crack. Despite the substantial increase in slider usage, hitters are batting just .197 against it with a ludicrous .049 isolated power number. And Statcast’s expected outcomes don’t predict a whole lot of regression at this point.
It’s difficult to imagine that a journeyman reliever could suddenly become a respectable starting pitcher at age 31. Doing so over the past two months gave Hardy a lot more opportunity to work on his game and it certainly seems to have benefited him. At some point he’s still likely to move over to a bullpen that badly needs a good lefty. For now, manager Ron Gardenhire appears to be considering a six-man rotation. It’s an interesting idea, particularly as a short term plan to get to the All-Star break. It may even allow for he and Francisco Liriano to pitch out of the pen a bit as well.
Should the Tigers decide simply to return Hardy to the bullpen, that’s not necessarily the end of Hardy’s run as a starter either. Injuries and trades may yet find him a spot in the Tigers’ rotation as the season progresses. If he keeps pitching like he has so far, it’ll be hard to deny him. But with a lack of good left-handers likely to be available at the trade deadline, it’s possible that Hardy may even earn himself a trade to a contender. For a pitcher who looked like his time in the majors was coming to an end this spring, it’s been a remarkable turn of fortune.