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Blaine Hardy was a pleasant surprise for the Tigers in 2018

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The lefty reliever proved his mettle as a starter.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Toronto Blue Jays Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In a season where there were high hopes surrounding the starting pitching, especially the likes of Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Matthew Boyd, there was one name that was never in the mix for pitching MVP, and that was Blaine Hardy. The lefty reliever didn’t even make the team out of spring training, and most believed that if he made it back to Detroit in the season it would be to offer LOOGY support to a flagging bullpen.

Then, something happened in Toledo.

Blaine Hardy started... starting.

And not only that, he started well. In the four games he started with the Mud Hens he had a 3-0 record, a 1.03 ERA, and a (brace yourself) 0.684 WHIP. Now these are minor league numbers, certainly, but they were enough to get the attention of the big club, where the team was suffering from a potential season-ending surgery for Daniel Norris, Francisco Liriano on the disabled list, and a variety of pitchers who simply weren’t working up to expectation.

On May 13th, in his fifth season with Detroit, Blaine Hardy made his first major league start. He was up against the intimidating force of James Paxton of the Mariners, who was fresh off his no-hitter. Unfortunately this was also to be the game where Hardy hit Robinson Cano in the hand with a pitch, and broke the second baseman’s hand. A memorable first game for all the wrong reasons. The Tigers won 5-4, with Hardy going 4.1 innings and giving up eight hits, but only two earned runs. Shane Greene got the win that day.

Hardy didn’t let the shaky first start deter him. Over the course of the season he appeared in 27 games, in a mix of long relief, and also in 13 starts. He ended the year with a 4-5 record, a 3.66 ERA, a 4.03 FIP, and a 1.159 WHIP. None of those numbers are going to put him in line to be a Cy Young contender, but they went a long way towards making Hardy a huge surprise for the season, and one of the most valuable members of the pitching staff. His ability to move fluidly between a variety of bullpen roles, and then take on starts whenever the team needed him, provided the Tigers a surprising amount of flexibility in the season.

In 2018, 13 different pitchers started games for the Tigers. That’s only three fewer than the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that made headlines this season for their unprecedented used of “the opener” and pioneering a new approach to bullpenning. The Tigers were not a team looking to embrace bullpenning, but even so, we saw the likes of Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen, and Artie Lewicki, generally more known for their bullpen presence, tackling the odd start through the year. This is nothing new, as teams will often turn to long-relief pitchers in their hour of need as a stopgap for starts when their usual rotation is fatigued or injured. What is unusual is seeing a reliever, especially a lefty reliever, slotted into the rotation and finding himself a natural fit.

Let’s take a look at how Hardy fared when we compare him to the rest of the traditional starters on the team.

Detroit Tigers Starting Pitchers

Player Wins Losses ERA Games Started Innings Pitched FIP WHIP SO/W
Player Wins Losses ERA Games Started Innings Pitched FIP WHIP SO/W
Matthew Boyd 9 13 4.39 31 170.1 4.44 1.157 3.12
Michael Fulmer 3 12 4.69 24 132.1 4.52 1.315 2.39
Francisco Liriano 5 11 4.40 25 131.0 5.18 1.489 1.48
Jordan Zimmermann 7 8 4.31 24 127.1 4.74 1.225 4.46
Mike Fiers 7 6 3.48 21 119.0 4.66 1.235 3.35
Blaine Hardy 4 5 3.66 13 83.2 4.03 1.159 3.00
Daniel Norris 0 5 5.22 7 39.2 4.72 1.437 2.53

Though Hardy clearly has lower innings owing to fewer starts, it’s still impressive to see how he stacks up when we compare his numbers to those of the other starters. I’ve included Daniel Norris here simply because he has long been considered to be a starter by the team, and in spite of a season cut short, he should still be mentioned in the context of the team’s starters.

Hardy had the second-lowest ERA for any of the starters, behind only Mike Fiers. He had the lowest FIP, and the second lowest WHIP. By Fangraphs WAR calculations, Hardy is the fifth most valuable pitcher on the entire Tigers roster at 1.2, with only Boyd, Joe Jimenez, Michael Fulmer, and Mike Fiers ranking above him. If we exclude Jimenez as a pure reliever, Hardy is the fourth most valuable pitcher the Tigers had this season. His BB/9 (2.26) and HR/9 (1.08) were among the lowest among the top four, with only Fiers having a lower BB/9.

What lead to this breakout season for Hardy? His pitch distribution has changed considerably this season, with reliance on his fastball dropping steeply, from 45.2% last season to 32.8% this season. His favor has clearly moved to his slider which jumped from 13.7% use in 2017 to 34.2% use the season. He also has a curveball and changeup that have seen use, but he has obviously leaned heavily on the slider, with positive results.

The funny thing about this is that Hardy admits his changeup was what he long considered his best pitch, and told Fangraphs earlier this season that his dad didn’t want him throwing a slider, or “anything with spin.” Hence a heavier reliance on the changeup. He still throws his change roughly a quarter of the time he’s out there, but it seems like a new focus on the slider is having very positive results for the lefty.

It’s unlikely we’ll see Hardy used as a regular starter next season, but he has more than proven himself worthy as a long reliever, which will hopefully keep him far, far away from LOOGY roles in the future. Regardless of what the future holds for Blaine Hardy, he was arguably one of the most pleasant surprises to come out of a largely disappointing 2018 Tigers season.