The 2018 Detroit Tigers continue to surprise people. From the seasoned fan to the casual observer.
On any given night, the Tigers lineup or rotation can feature some less-than-household names. Those names, however, are becoming more familiar to Tigers fans.
Niko Goodrum? Check. John Hicks? Yep, heard of him. Grayson Greiner? Sure, he’s the catching prospect.
This new group of Bengals continues to forge its identity, but the baseball season is long and often contains a heavy dose of twists and turns. You can be designated for assignment (DFA’d) one day and find yourself in the rotation the next. Just ask Blaine Hardy. You can count on one hand the number of people that expected him to be a major contributor this year
Hardy was DFA’d by the Tigers in late March as spring camp was winding down. When a player is designated, he is removed from his club’s 40-man roster. Within the next seven days, the player can either be traded or placed on waivers.
If the player is claimed off waivers by another club, he is immediately added to that team’s 40-man roster.
Hardy was not claimed by any other team and was outrighted to Toledo. A tough pill to swallow for a veteran reliever who made 70 appearances with a 3.08 ERA out of the Tigers bullpen just three years ago. Hardy wasn’t about to sulk. He felt that missing most of spring training with shoulder soreness was the reason other clubs passed on him. He reported to Toledo and embarked on a new mission, becoming a starter. After 168 major league appearances out of the bullpen, Hardy got back to the big leagues in a starting capacity.
Hardy made four starts with the Mud Hens and pitched to a 0.84 ERA in that role. When Jordan Zimmermann and Francisco Liriano landed on the disabled list with the major league club, Hardy was summoned from Toledo to help buoy the Tigers staff. From castoff to the contributor in a matter of a month. That’s how arbitrary baseball can be sometimes.
Hardy has made seven starts for the Tigers, his most recent on Sunday in Chicago. He is 3-0 with a 3.41 ERA in those starts and it’s easy to see why he has had success. For starters, he is dead on lefties. Left-handers are hitting a paltry .178 against him. More importantly though, Hardy does the one thing pitching coaches crave, and that is to throw strikes.
On Sunday, Hardy handcuffed the White Sox, pitching into the 6th inning, allowing only one run. He threw 77 pitches on the day and a startling 52 were strikes. On a day in which the heat index reached 100 degrees on the field, Tigers defenders appreciated the pace with which Hardy worked.
With an average fastball clocking in at a pedestrian 88 to 89 MPH, throwing quality strikes is a must and Hardy has done plenty of that. The key to his success this year has been his ability to pound the strike zone. Hardy has a first-pitch strike rate of nearly 67% this season. Of American League pitchers with at least 40 innings this year, that figure ranks tied for fifth in the league. When he occasionally falls behind in the count, Hardy doesn’t mess around. Heading into his start in Chicago, he had an 82% strike rate when falling behind, the best in the major leagues.
“The biggest difference from previous years is that I was almost trying to be too fine, giving the hitters too much credit,” Hardy said. “I would start nibbling and fall behind. I’m almost to the point where I’m throwing my first pitch and hoping that they put it in play, he said.”
“I want you to put the ball in play in the first three pitches and that’s why I think I have had success going deeper in games.”
It’s hard to tell where the Tigers might be without Hardy’s contribution this year. The staff is getting healthier with Zimmermann returning from the disabled list and hopefully Liriano not far behind. Hardy’s performance has the Tigers considering a six-man rotation heading to the All-Star break. A move to a six-man rotation could give guys an extra day’s rest as we delve into the heart of the summer. Either way, Hardy will stay in the big leagues.
Baseball has a way of rewarding those that are patient. Hardy’s patience this year has proved to be virtuous.