The Brewers are in first place in the National League Central at the All-Star break thanks to a multitude of positive factors, with the re-emergence of J.J. Hardy in the lineup representing one of the most significant. Hardy has more than doubled his career home run total with 18 shots so far this season, surprising many fans and analysts, but should it?

James Jerry Hardy attended Sabino High School in Tucson, Arizona, where he was a First Team All-American Infielder his final season. The Milwaukee Brewers selected him in the second round at #56 overall in the 2001 amateur entry draft, with the Hardy signing soon after in July. The right-handed hitter would debut in the Rookie League in Arizona before moving on to Ogden in the Pioneer League:

Year Team       AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2001 Ogden(Rk) 125  .248/.326/.336   23% .088    5   10.4%   8.3%

Hardy would not do much with the bat during his professional debut, with a sub-.100 Isolated Power and low batting average. His control of the strike zone was admirable, though, as he balanced 15 walks against just 12 strikeouts in 144 plate appearances. His .261 BABIP is also noteworthy, considering the high averages for the stat at the low levels. Hardy received rave reviews for his defensive potential rather than for his bat, but many believed he would turn into a fine hitter with the proper experience. Baseball America was all over this in their 2002 prospect book, ranking him the #7 prospect in the Brewers’ system:

Hardy has such a good arm that some teams considered drafting him as a pitcher out of high school…Though they got him in the second round, they consider Hardy a first-round talent. He has good genes, as his father Mark played professional tennis and his mother Susan golfed on the LPGA tour. Hardy has superior instincts and skills on defense, including a great arm and range. He has soft hands and is fundamentally sound beyond his years…many believe he merely needs more experience with a wood bat. He doesn’t have much foot speed to speak of but gets good jumps on the ball and makes plays other shortstops don’t.

Despite his struggles in his pro debut, the Brewers bounced Hardy up to High-A High Desert for his first full-season campaign. Considering his age and defensive skills he performed well, at least until he was shipped to Double-A Huntsville and fell on his face:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2002 High Desert(A+)  335  .293/.327/.409   27% .116   20    5.2%  10.4%
2002 Huntsville(2A)   145  .228/.269/.297   24% .069    7    5.6%  11.9%

His .316 BABIP was more in line with what you expect for the level than his previous season’s work, but it dropped to .256 during his overmatched Huntsville stint. The increase in his strikeout rate isn’t disconcerting, but the halving of his walk rate certainly was. His line at High Desert did not leave much room for error and was not a huge step forward, so the jump up to Huntsville was particularly questionable given where he was offensively. Then again, this is the same Brewers front office that did their best to try to rush and ruin Bill Hall before Doug Melvin came to town and (rightfully) slowed things down. Hardy had a better go of things in the Arizona Fall League, foreshadowing a more productive season upon repeating Huntsville for a full season. Baseball America moved Hardy to #6 in the organization in 2003:

Offensively, he’s a gap-to-gap hitter and the Brewers are confident his power will increase as he matures. His work ethic and personality are outstanding. With his first full pro season complete, Hardy embarked on a weightlifting program designed to increase strength. Learning to draw walks also would help boost his offensive productivity. He could also add some loft to his swing.

The emphasis is mine, for reasons we will return to later. Baseball Prospectus 2003 was also a fan of Hardy, despite his low walk totals in the minors:

There are some things to like here. Hardy’s a tremendous and graceful athlete, with great range and a powerful arm at shortstop. He hit for some average at High Desert, with a few doubles as a teaser for more power in the future. He didn’t walk a lot, but he put the ball in play, and wasn’t fooled by occasions when he wasn’t thrown fastballs. Hardy’s young enough to develop his offensive skills, and he plays defense well enough that he’ll probably be a talented shortstop in the majors. He’s not going to be Alex Rodriguez, but Hardy could turn into a very good ballplayer.

Hardy’s return to Huntsville went much better than the first trip, with more power, better control of the strike zone, and a .297 BABIP:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2003 Huntsville(2A)   416  .279/.368/.428   33% .149   26    12.0%  11.1%

Hardy’s 58 free passes to 54 strikeouts was impressive following his last two stops, and his walk rate more than doubled as well. His batting average and power recovered, with Hardy posting the best ISO of his career and netting 38 extra-base hits. That’s the kind of line you can love from a top-notch defensive shortstop-the kind of line people wish Adam Everett had-but Hardy was not finished developing as a hitter.

Hardy moved up to #3 on the Brewers prospect rankings, with Baseball America adding some new information in 2004:

Scouts were uncertain about his hitting ability when he was an amateur, but he has surprising pop and rarely strikes out because of his plate discipline. What the Brewers really like about Hardy, however, is his competitive nature. His makeup is off the charts. Hardy sometimes gets long with his swings and goes into funks at the plate…His intense nature causes him to wear down at times.

Baseball Prospectus 2004 was also a fan of Hardy, but wasn’t thrilled about rushing him to the majors following some time at Triple-A:

Even for the Brewers, they’ve been ambitious in terms of how they’ve pushed Hardy up the chain. It’s easy to understand why though… He missed three weeks with a hip injury, which some speculated cost him the Southern League MVP to Corey Hart. Comparisons to shortstops named Alex Gonzalez are being bandied about, but Hardy should turn out better than either one, as opposed to what everyone wishcast for them for a few years (ourselves being among the guilty). PECOTA doesn’t like Hardy, but he’s got a little bit of power, improving patience, and he might be the best defensive shortstop in the minors.

PECOTA really disliked Hardy, forecasting a .225/.288/.341 line if he were to play in the majors during 2004, but that’s understandable given his one half-decent minor league offensive season. Hardy would move on to Triple-A Indianapolis for his final season in the minors, but his campaign would be cut short by torn labrum:

Year Team              AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2004 Indianapolis(3A) 101  .277/.330/.495   50% .218   10     8.0%   7.1%

His walk rate dipped down four percent, but his strikeout rate also fell and his power jumped considerably. After his career-high .149 ISO the season before, Hardy improved by another 69 points and posted his first above the .200 mark. His batting average was probably low given his .270 BABIP as well, and if he had continued to play without interruption we may have seen a .290/.340/.500 type season from a 22-year old Triple-A shortstop with potentially the best glove at short in the minors. Instead, Hardy lost out on valuable playing time, and then nevertheless finds himself headed to the majors when he returns in 2005.

The oddest part about his 2004 improvement is that Hardy injured the labrum in spring training and had it fixed in May, ending his season. He set a career high ISO with a popped out shoulder and torn labrum, so at least you know his bat was catching up to his defensive ability somewhat. Baseball Prospectus 2005 was excited about Hardy moving forward:

After some mediocre performances in the lower minors, he broke out with a terrific season in 2003, but a torn labrum interrupted his season in 2004. He performed well after his return, however, and the Brewers remain enamored with his defense. Now healthy, he is going to camp with the big club in March…If his bat continues to progress and he gets the normal power spike as he ages, Hardy could be a perennial contender for the Brewers’ token All-Star slot.

Hardy would indeed make the roster during 2005, but his first-half performance left something to be desired. Luckily for Hardy and the Brewers, he answered to that in the second half, hitting .308/.363/.503, well in line with his Triple-A campaign from the year before. His 2006 season was mostly lost due to a severe ankle injury that landed him on the Disabled List from May through the rest of the year. His .234 EqA was uninspiring, but we’re also talking about 139 plate appearances and a .281/.333/.429 April before his struggling for two weeks in May; essentially, you can throw 2006 out of the mix as a developmental year. Hardy has broken out in 2007 though, making his first All-Star team (and before teammate Rickie Weeks, who was always the higher ranked prospect):

Year Team            AB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  XBH%  ISO  2B+3B   BB%    K%
2005 Milwaukee(MLB) 372  .247/.327/.384   35% .137   23    10.6%  12.9%
2006 Milwaukee(MLB) 128  .242/.295/.398   32% .156    5     7.2%  18.0%
2007 Milwaukee(MLB) 325  .280/.338/.495   36% .215   15     7.9%  14.8%

Hardy has increased his power drastically, and basically looks like the hitter he did at Triple-A in 2004 and in the majors during the second half of 2005-he hit eight of his nine homers in 2005 in the second half. His walk rate isn’t as high as you’d like given his tendency to hit for a low batting average, but he doesn’t strike out much and gets his fair share of extra-base hits. Let’s not forget about his excellent defense, a key point in any discussion concerning his overall value as a player.

To return to an earlier point, Hardy has managed to find his power stroke by finally adding some loft to his swing. He was formerly more of a line-drive and groundball hitter, but after a few seasons of below-average BABIP he’s taken to the air, where he’s thrived:

Year  P/PA   FB%  LINEDR%  GB%   IF/F%  HR/F%  BABIP eBABIP  Diff.
2005  3.6   35.7%  21.1%  43.2%  15.7%   7.8%  .263   .331  +.068
2006  4.1   34.3%  19.0%  46.7%  16.7%  13.9%  .260   .310  +.050
2007  3.9   46.0%  17.3%  36.7%  10.9%  14.1%  .282   .293  +.010

Hardy’s lines are much improved after adjusting for his BABIP and line drive rates in both 2005 and 2006, at .315/.395/.452 and .292/.345/.448. This helps the idea that Hardy was a capable hitter in the majors before 2007, but due to poor luck and injuries, he did not perform. His BABIP from the first half of 2005 was .211, which dragged down his overall figure despite a .318 mark after the All-Star Game.

Whereas he was formerly a groundball hitter, Hardy has jumped his flyball rate by almost 12 percent while cutting down on the rate at which he pops up. His HR/F% is just about where it was in 2006, and with more flyballs we see more homers. His BABIP is roughly 10 points below what’s expected, but that’s not significant and might fix itself before the year is out anyways. His increased selectivity since 2005 has more than likely helped him add power to his game as well, as Hardy can sit back and wait on a pitch he can send towards the bleachers.

Hardy has some serious pull power, as evidenced by the 13 homers he’s dumped into left field so far this year. He’s got enough pop to hit them out in center too, as you can see in this chart from First Inning:

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Hardy doesn’t go to right field too often, but he picks up many of his singles in that direction. His power is lacking there relative to left field, where he has hit .705 on balls to the outfield between his doubles and homer output. The only real worrisome aspect of his game comes from his Home/Road splits; Hardy’s a .327/.380/.588 hitter in Milwaukee but just a .238/.302/.413 on the road. His BABIP there is only .245 though, which makes me wonder if this is more random poor luck than a park factor issue, given that Miller Park is neutral overall. The difference in homers-11 at home to 7 on the road-is courtesy of Miller Park though, as it has been pegged as a fun place for right-handers with some sock in their swing.

Defensively, Hardy has done well for himself in the majors. The Fielding Bible rated him a +10 in 2005, with the line, “He makes excellent adjustments in the field, especially on bad hops, which helps reduce his error totals” to go along with it. He didn’t play enough in 2006 to qualify on David Pinto‘s Probabilistic Model of Range, but his early UZR figures had Hardy headed for +15 runs per 150 games defensively. He’s a quality defensive player, and if he does go down the Brewers have a more than capable replacement in Bill Hall, who played in his stead last year while finishing alongside Adam Everett in the PMR rankings. Combined with his production at the plate-Hardy has 19.8 VORP at the break, 10th-best in the majors among shortstops-the Brewers have themselves one of the better shortstops in the league.

Hardy has finally seen that boost of power many expected him to find once he aged somewhat, and his health seems to be in order so far in 2007 as well. Given the sheer number of games and experience he lost out on due to shoulder and ankle issues, it’s no surprise that some were shocked to find that James Hardy is a pretty good stick in addition to a superior glove at his position. If he can stay on the field, Hardy should be able to produce at the level he’s at for years to come-he’s just 24 years old after all-and PECOTA’s 90th percentile forecast (.295/.363/.489) matches up well with Hardy’s actual line. Hardy is one of the important pieces in the Brewers future in the National League, especially with Rickie Weeks struggling to find his footing. Hardy’s development at the plate will have to hold if the Brewers want to stay on top in the NL Central in the short term; long-term, other players on the roster will have to step up their own games.

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