Adapt or die: Tigers' Blaine Hardy continues to refine, reimagine his pitch mix

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – Blaine Hardy may be married to a scientist, but the Tigers’ left-handed reliever isn’t much interested in all the techno-analytical babble that pervades his craft these days — spin rates, spin axis, spin efficiency, blah, blah, blah.

Blaine Hardy's four-pitch mix hasn’t changed, but the way he uses them, which ones he relies on, changes constantly.

Truth be told, Nicky Hardy pays more attention to that stuff than her husband does. Blaine Hardy is just old-fashioned that way.

“I’ve never been huge on letting the numbers dictate what I should throw,” he said. “The hitter will tell you everything you need to know by how he is swinging at a pitch. There are days when you face a certain hitter and he ends up hitting a good pitch that he shouldn’t hit.

“Was that because he’s a good hitter and he knew what was coming? Was that the wrong pitch or was that the right pitch and he just got lucky? Analytics aren’t going to tell you that, either.”

Hardy is somewhat of an outlier in the Tigers bullpen. He doesn’t possess a power arm like most the club’s relievers. He also isn’t a two-pitch pitcher. He has the weaponry, and the cunning, to vanquish hitters on both sides of the plate (right-handed hitters are 2 for 12 against him this season).

And that versatility makes him an invaluable, multi-role piece of the puzzle. He’s essentially replaced Alex Wilson as the reliever manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson can use in any situation – spot start, long relief, middle relief, situational outs and in high-leverage, as was the case on Monday when he worked the seventh and eighth and protected a two-run lead.

“He’s worked his way into that,” Gardenhire said. “We’ve got a couple of different choices down there, but Blaine is one of those guys you trust – just like we did on Monday. He can go through the righty-lefty thing, too – he as good against righties as he is against lefties as far as I’m concerned.

“I don’t worry about Blaine when I put him out there. I feel pretty good about it.”

Even though he rarely throws a pitch above 90 mph, Hardy has posted a strikeout rate between 18 and 20 percent throughout his career. In the early going this year, he has a 22.2 percent strikeout rate and a low 15.4 hard-hit rate, according to Statcast.

He’s got a 35.7 percent whiff rate on his change-up.

How is he able to do that? His ability to command at least three of his four pitches on any given outing is part of it. His baseball IQ and ability to read swings is another part of it. And, even if he doesn’t pay the numbers much heed, his spin rate plays into it, as well.

“I was talking to Mike Montgomery (Cubs reliever who Hardy came up with through the Royals system),” Hardy said. “He’s a big analytics guy and out of nowhere he started rattling off some numbers he’d pulled up from some web site. And he said, your fastball spin rate is higher than mine.

“And I was like, ‘I don’t care.’”

Hardy, on his 88-90 mph four-seamer, has a spin rate of 2,302 revolutions per minute – a big jump from 2,161 rpm last season. Montgomery, whose average fastball velocity is 92-93 mph, has a spin rate of 2,039. 

Significant in that it gives Hardy’s fastball more ride, which makes appear firmer to hitters.

“It almost gives you more confidence,” Hardy said. “I try to use all my stuff evenly to keep hitters off-balance. But when he told me about that, I was thinking, you know what, I’ve kind of shied away from my fastball and it’s had success.

“But partially, that’s because of how much junk I throw. Hitters are like, ‘OK, he loves his cutter, loves his change-up, pick one of the two, and I can throw a heater by them and they’re like, ‘Woah, he’s not supposed to throw that.’”

Perseverance and adaptation

Hardy’s journey to the big leagues from NAIA power Lewis-Clark State College has been a study in perseverance, for sure. Released by the Royals in March of 2013, signed by the Tigers a month later, he was one of the Tigers’ best relievers in 2015.

But after battling through arm injuries for the better part of two seasons, the Tigers designated him for assignment before last season. After clearing waivers, he signed back on a minor-league deal and worked his way, not only back to the big leagues, but back to being an integral bullpen arm.

A study in perseverance, and adaptation. His four-pitch mix hasn’t changed, but the way he uses them, which ones he relies on, changes constantly. In 2015, he featured a devastating curve ball. Last year, he barely used his curveball. His cutter-slider hybrid was his money pitch.

This year, the cutter hasn’t been as sharp, but his change-up has been, with the exception of the one he hung to Alex Gordon Monday, has been almost unhittable.

 “It comes down to this: rarely does a four-pitch guy have all four pitches,” Hardy said. “So, it is a matter of figuring out in the bullpen what pitches are working. If your cutter is backing up, you go, ‘OK, is that supposed to happen or is it something I should shy away from?’

“The change-up has always been my go-to pitch. It’s just lately, it’s been moving a lot more and I’m getting swings and misses on it. So I keep throwing it.”

In 2015, he threw his curveball 24 percent of the time and opponents hit just .197 against it. He threw it just 12 percent of the time last year, though hitters still struggled against it (.185).

“The curveball was probably the pitch that got me to the big leagues,” Hardy said. “Then for some odd reason, in 2016, after bouncing back from rehab, it just wasn’t the same. So, then I heavily relied on the change-up, to try and get my curveball back.

“But it’s never got back to what it was.”

Hardy was having issues with his shoulder, and he changed his mechanics. Whatever he changed lessened the effectiveness of his curveball, but his shoulder has been stronger — so it’s a trade off he’d make every time.

A cutter was born

“And then I found the cutter, and I love it,” he said. “I’d thrown a slider in the past, but it’s tough to have both a curveball and a slider and have them work together. So I thought, maybe if I modify the slider into a cutter, let’s see what happens.

“Sure enough, I threw it and it barely moved, like a cutter is supposed to. And I thought, ‘OK, this might work.’ Then (the movement on it) started getting bigger and bigger and I was like, ‘OK!’”

The spin rate on his cutter is 2,364 rpm, which is about 200 rpm above the average. The pitch does put stress on his arm, though, so he’s brought it along slowly this season. He hasn’t had the same command of it he had a year ago.

And yet, he’s still off to a very strong start without it.

“It’ll get there, I am not worried about it,” he said.

Still, having that cutter working takes him to another level.

“You can see why a guy like Mariano Rivera was so effective just throwing that one pitch,” Hardy said. “Because it wasn’t just one pitch. It was multiple pitches. He could change speeds, he could change the break. He could make it look like a small one and end up being a big one.

“The only thing a hitter knew for sure with that pitch was that it was, for him, going to go right to left. He was a freak of nature.”

Hardy isn’t saying his cutter can ever be like Rivera’s, but it can serve the same purpose for him — it can keep the hitters off-balanced and guessing.

“Honestly, as long as I am getting people out, I don’t care what I have to throw,” he said.

Twitter @cmccosky