It’s awfully early in Spring Training for heavy questions. That didn’t stop Peter Schmuck from laying one on the Orioles’ recently extended shortstop:

J.J. Hardy pondered the hypothetical question longer than most professional athletes might.

If he had not spent most of the 2014 season trying to play through a painful back injury that forced him to alter his swing and trade power for playing time, would he have bypassed free agency for the three-year, $40 million contract he signed right in the middle of the Orioles’ postseason run?

“You never know,” Hardy said on Saturday. “I don’t know the answer to that. It might have made things different. You look at the year before at the qualifying offer and what it did to Stephen Drew. That was something that was going through my head. I can’t say that it didn’t.”

There’s a lot to digest in that, but Hardy would go on to elaborate:

“I dealt with my back issues pretty much the whole year. I think it went out the first week of the season and never felt good again until sometime in the middle of the season for maybe a month. Then it came around again towards the end of the season. It was a constant battle just to stay on the field. I feel like I did everything I could do. I definitely didn’t feel like I could drive the ball the way my back was.”

“I think I hit all my home runs in a two-month span when my back felt okay and towards the end it started doing it (hurting) again and I went back to just trying to put the ball in play and doing anything I could to help the team,” he said.

Peter Schmuck points out that Hardy didn’t hit his first home run until June 21st last season, and that the end of the season saw another power drought for Hardy. All told, Hardy hit all nine of his home runs over a 63 game span from June 21st through the end of August. Last season was certainly not a banner year for the powerful right-handed hitter.

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The numbers certainly seem to support Hardy’s claim. His slugging percentage dropped 61 points while his BABIP rose more than 54 points to a new career high of .317.

And so, the question inevitably becomes, what is the form that Hardy must get back to in order to have a solid 2015 campaign? One that more closely mirrors his 2011-2013 campaigns than last season’s. It starts with pitches up in the zone. Take a look at the change in slugging percentage by zone from 2013 to 2014:

'13-'14 Change

Only two zones above the midpoint of the strikezone show improvement. Among those two zones, one hardly counts because the top left corner represents a home run Hardy hit in 2014, whereas he never put a ball in play on a pitch in that zone the prior season.

So that leaves us with nine zones along the top of the strikezone where Hardy put at least four balls in play per season. Eight of those zones saw Hardy produce worse power output last season than he did the year before.

If Hardy’s admission that his back issues were to blame for his lost power, there might be some evidence visible in his swing. Below is an image that shows the difference between one of Hardy’s swings from each of the past two seasons:

Hardy

In the above image, 2014 is on the left while 2013 is on the right. Now obviously these are single screenshots, but they show a telling difference. The red line extends from Hardy’s heel through his hip. The line in 2013 (right) is more vertical showcasing Hardy’s firm front side through which he drove his swing to generate power. The 2014 image (left) shows Hardy’s front side flying open a bit and a noticeably weaker front side. These two pitches were in similar locations, but the 2014 swing resulted in a hard single while the 2013 swing resulted in a pitch that landed in the seats.

Again, these are just single swings, but they might be giving a glimpse into the mechanical tweaks Hardy made to accommodate a bad back.

Hopefully a full offseason has given Hardy time to fully heal and repair his swing mechanics. Hopefully Hardy’s 2015 season looks more like his 2011-2013 run than last year. Hopefully Hardy is once again a a significant contributor to a playoff-bound Orioles team.

Jeff Long
Jeff Long

Jeff was the owner of the Orioles blog Warehouse Worthy, which focused on making advanced statistics a part of the conversation for the average fan. Outside of baseball, Jeff is a graduate of Loyola University where he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s in Business Administration. The Maryland native currently works for an Advertising Agency in downtown Baltimore. Previously a contributor to Beyond the Boxscore, he joined Baseball Prospectus in September 2014. You can reach him at [email protected]

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