Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
They call baseball America's pastime. So what does that make fantasy baseball?
For stat lovers like me, it's paradise. It's embarrassing how much joy I get from the simple fact that Tigers DH Victor Martinez has more home runs than strikeouts this season. And because I have a dark, sadistic mind, I wholeheartedly enjoy waking up each morning knowing that MLB's ERA leader, Jeff Samardzija, is still win-less (poor Cubs).
But even those juicy stat nuggets seem tame compared to what J.J. Hardy has been brewing in Baltimore this year. Hardy, a man who has homered 158 times in his career, has now gone 227 visits to the plate without a round-tripper. That's a span of 58 games in a row without leaving the yard.
Strange but true. But at least Hardy can still rip singles whenever he wants (29 in 134 at bats). Mike Olt, a rookie third baseman for the Cubs, has only nine of those this season. In an equally bizarre twist of fate, he also has nine home runs.
WHAT IS GOING ON??!! This is just too much. Even ESPN's squeaky-voiced stat-a- holic (look at me inventing new words) Tim Kurkjian is freaking out right now. And somewhere, Texas catcher J.P. Arencibia is probably doing an awesome impression of him.
Let's roll up our sleeves and conquer this madness. We'll begin with Hardy, a two-time All-Star and usually one of the better power-hitting shortstops in baseball. Between 2011 and 2013, Hardy averaged 25.7 HR per season for a grand total of 77 long balls. That's miles ahead of Troy Tulowitzki (63 HR) and Hanley Ramirez (54). Even Ian Desmond, baseball's Greek god of consistency, has just 53 blasts over that span.
Among shortstops, Hardy's home run output has been unmatched. So why after all these years has he suddenly decided to abandon his craft?
Hardy as a singles hitter? That's like Frank Sinatra deciding to re-brand himself as a hip hop artist. It just doesn't make any sense.
As I alluded to earlier, Hardy has partially made up for his declining power numbers by increasing his average from .263 last season to .276. That's 16 points higher than his career average. He's also on pace for 30 doubles this season, which is just one off his career-high.
Generally when a player quits home run-hitting cold turkey like Hardy just did, it's because they're sacrificing power for more consistent contact. Yet Hardy's contact rate this season (86.2 percent) is actually a tad lower than it was last season (87.8). His strikeout percentage (14.9 percent), another telltale sign of how consistently a player is making contact, is practically identical to the one he produced in 2013 (15.0).
Hardy actually did have a season similar to this in 2010, the only year he played for the Twins. That year, he launched just six homers in 340 trips to the plate. That six-homer campaign was sandwiched in between an 11-homer season in 2009 and a 30-homer year in 2011. It seems Hardy and the word consistency have never met.
Maybe it's as simple as Hardy getting too much air under the baseball. During his three-year home run extravaganza, Hardy owned a ground ball rate of 0.79. This year, that number has slipped to 0.63. Instead of hitting line drives and hard grounders, Hardy seems to be settling for popups and lazy fly balls. That strategy doesn't exactly scream long-term success.
And neither does Mike Olt's. But the nine home runs he's bashed this season have at least gotten our attention. Despite a .190 average, Olt is on pace for 33 jacks and 88 RBI. Since 2000, just one hitter has hit 30 homers while carrying an average below .200. Mark Reynolds accomplished that in 2010 when he collected 32 HR with a .198 average. If Olt makes it to 30 home runs with his current .733 OPS, he'd have the lowest OPS since Tony Batista in 2004 (.727 OPS, 32 HR).
By all measures, Olt is having an historic season, and not in a good way. The difference between Hardy and Olt (besides everything) is that with Hardy, we have over seven years of major league experience to draw on. The same can't be said of Olt, who is playing in his 55th major league game today.
Thankfully, we do have Olt's minor league numbers handy and they draw a pretty convincing picture of who the 25-year-old really is. As it turns out, he's exactly the player he's been in the major leagues, a straight power hitter with almost no concept of hitting for average. During his only season in Triple-A, Olt hit .197 with 14 round-trippers in 361 at bats. He struck out in almost 35 percent of his at bats.
That doesn't offer much hope for improvement but at least we know where we stand with Olt. Hardy on the other hand, is doing the opposite of what we thought he would.
Oh baseball, you never cease to amaze me. Excuse me while I pop in Sinatra's new mix-tape.
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