J.J. Hardy, after signing a three-year $40 million extension late last season, missed the first month of the season due to injury. Since then, he has been in and out of the lineup due to some nagging injuries. Amidst the injuries, Hardy has had disappointed mightily at the plate. Some of it can be traced to bad BABIP luck, but a lot of the problems are more sustainable. Hardy has always maintained a solid batting line for a shortstop by avoiding strikeouts and having surprising power from the shortstop position. Those qualities seem to have all but disappeared since last season.
Hardy reached a career high in strikeout rate last season at 18.3%. It has only gotten worse this season, with a 21.7% strikeout rate currently. This is only the second season in his career where he has a strikeout rate above the league average. The change from previous seasons has been a sharp drop in contact rate on pitches outside the strike zone. In prior seasons, Hardy has been able to make contact with about 75% of the pitches outside the zone when he does swing at them. For the last two seasons, the number drops to around 60%. Hardy is swinging and missing much more often due to his inability to fight off pitches outside the zone.
Hardy has never been one who takes walks consistently, which seems to be a quality shared by the majority of the O's position players. This has not changed so far this season. He is currently having the lowest walk rate of his career at 2.8%. Similar to the story with his strikeouts, this follows from a career low walk rate of 5.1% last season.
Digging into the pitch data, Hardy does not have the typical profile of a hacker like Adam Jones. Hardy is extremely patient at the plate, swinging at pitches both in and out of the zone at a rate far below the league average. It is difficult to come up with a reason why such an approach has led to so few walks, but we have had multiple years of evidence that it's unlikely to change.
The most depressing development with Hardy might be his power decline. In his first three seasons with the O's, he had more than 20 homers in each season. Last year, he hit 9 of them, and it does not appear that he has regained his power stroke this season. He has a total of 4 extra-base hits in more than 100 PA this season. Hardy has always been a fly ball hitter and this has not changed, but an increasing number of them are landing in the outfielders' gloves instead of finding the gaps or reaching the stand.
The good thing for the O's is that Hardy remains an excellent shortstop defensively. He does not need to regain his batting line from previous seasons to earn his contract. All he has to do is not to become a black hole in the lineup. Despite age not being on his side, Hardy should be able to do enough offensively to make his contract a worthwhile gamble.
All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.