Playing through a torn labrum in his left shoulder for most of last season, J.J. Hardy slumped to the worst offensive output of his career. He slashed just .219/.253/.311 with eight home runs in 114 games. By the end of the year, he was also dealing with lower-body injuries, and labored to run. Never fleet of foot, Hardy looked like an old man as he dragged his body down the line on one of his many groundouts.
Just how bad was Hardy last season, you ask?
His OPS+ of 53 ranked five points below Zack Greinke and 48 points below Madison Bumgarner‘s 101. As the season wound to a close, Hardy was as close to an automatic out as a player can be. He batted just .182 in his 148 August and September at-bats. Electing to forgo surgery in favor of rehabilitation and strengthening, there was legitimate reason to believe Hardy would never be the same player who hit 77 home runs from 2011 to 2013.
Every meaningful statistic has been going in the wrong direction for Hardy over the past two years. The more troubling declines have been in his batted ball numbers, which indicate a player with flagging bat speed and power. His pull rate, hard-hit rate, and contact rate have all fallen well below career norms. Hardy’s ground ball percentage was a ridiculous 49.4 percent in 2015. With his shoulder injury, all he could do was weakly roll over most pitches. There was no lift left in his swing by season’s end.
Entering the 2016 season, there was little reason to expect that the Baltimore Orioles would get any reasonable return on their $40 million extension with Hardy. Age and injuries have caught up with him the past two years, and decline is hard to slow once it begins. Through 24 at-bats in the Grapefruit League, Hardy is batting .375 with a double, a triple, and only three strikeouts. While it’s far too early to put much stock in numbers from spring training, this hot start is at least a positive indication that Hardy’s shoulder is doing better.
It remains highly unlikely that J.J. Hardy will appear in another All-Star Game or win another Silver Slugger, but that is not what the Orioles need from him. Hardy is going to be the shortstop in Baltimore for the next two seasons. Before his contract runs out, the Orioles need him to hit better than a pitcher in the National League. Hardy has never been a player to take a walk, and almost all of his value comes from his ability to hit for some power from a traditionally weak-hitting position. Last year showed how severely injuries can hamper a player like Hardy’s power. Hardy is healthy for now, and the Orioles should expect him to give a boost to the bottom third of their order this season. He cannot possibly be worse than last season.
It will be a fight for the Orioles and Hardy to stay healthy for a full season, but for now, early indications from Florida show that his body is mended. The swing looks better, and Hardy is making solid contact again. Will that hold up over a 162-game schedule? Only time will tell.