Showalter Terms J.J. Hardy A Champ To Build Around
By Matt Palmer
Buck Showalter just had to see it again.
During the top half of the eighth inning of a June 9 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Orioles reliever Pedro Strop, working with the bases loaded, delivered a fastball to Ty Wigginton. The ball came off Wigginton's bat hard, but slowed in the grass and didn't bounce. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, never taking his eye off it, laid his glove down, scooped the ball and tossed it to second baseman Robert Andino, who threw to first to turn a double play.
Hardy, as he has done throughout his stint with the Orioles, made a difficult play look routine.
"I've watched that thing about five times," Showalter said a day later in the team's dugout. "That's almost impossible to make that play. He was kind of laughing when he came in."
Hardy was supposed to be a placeholder at shortstop for the Orioles when the team traded for him Dec. 10, 2010. Six months earlier, the club took high school prospect Manny Machado with the third overall pick in the 2010 first-year player draft. Now, Hardy is a cornerstone shortstop, performing at the level of former team greats Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Bordick.
Hardy was an All-Star Game reserve selection with the Brewers in 2007, when he hit 26 homers and tallied 80 RBIs. After another solid season with Milwaukee in 2008, when he hit 24 homers and drove in 74 runs, his career began to slide. Injuries took a toll, and in 2009, Hardy played in 115 games and hit just .229, with 11 homers and 47 RBIs. He was briefly demoted to Triple-A during that year and was then traded to Minnesota, where he played in just 101 games during the 2010 season, as his numbers dived further and his time on the DL increased.
When Andy MacPhail, the O's former president of baseball operations, traded two minor league pitchers for Hardy, it said as much about what the Orioles expected as it did about what the Twins thought of Hardy's future in Minnesota. Few could have seen what was coming from Hardy in Baltimore.
The Orioles knew they had a solid fielder on their hands, but weren't sure how much he was going to perform offensively. The answer is a surprising one: Hardy might be the best overall shortstop in Major League Baseball.
"I didn't know how good he was," Showalter said. "I really didn't. If I had known then what I know now, boy. … He's a good one. We're lucky to have him."
When a fan asked Dan Duquette earlier this year how long it would take for Machado to be starting at shortstop, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations pumped the brakes.
"We're not touching J.J. Hardy as our shortstop," Duquette said. "A lot of your great infielders start out as shortstops. Manny Machado is a top-rated prospect. He probably needs some more seasoning."
How Hardy changed the club's mindset is a remarkable story. Despite missing a full month in 2011, Hardy hit 30 home runs, tops among shortstops, and drove in 80 runs, fourth most of any major league shortstop. He also scored 76 runs. Only one player on the Orioles roster hit more home runs, and just two drove in more runs.
Defensively, Hardy is as good as advertised, perhaps even better. During the 2011 campaign, his six errors were the fewest of any shortstop in baseball, and his fielding percentage was second best.
Rather than let Hardy hit the open market during the most recent offseason, the Orioles made the interesting move of extending Hardy's contract for three years and gave him $7 million per season.
When he signed the contract, Hardy indicated how much he wanted to put down roots in the Baltimore community.
"I like all the guys in this clubhouse," he said at the time. "I like the coaching staff. I just think overall I've had a lot of fun here, and there's been years I didn't have a lot of fun playing. That's a big thing for me, to have fun, and all these guys allow me to do that."
He has continued that success in 2012, and had the second-most home runs on the club (11) and was the best among all shortstops again as of June 10. Defensively, he had the second-best fielding percentage among shortstops, and the second-fewest errors.
"He reminds me of Kevin Elster, probably the best hands I've ever seen on a shortstop," Showalter said of the member of the 1986 World Series champion Mets.
Elster, at one time, held a record for most consecutive games without an error. Ripken later broke it.
"It's almost like when [Hardy] makes an error, he makes everybody else feel better," Showalter said. "He makes short hops look routine. Everybody knows how routine it is. People almost don't get the full effect of what he's doing, because he's not flashy."
For all his success, Hardy has not drawn the buzz of other shortstops. By mid-June, his numbers, both offensively and defensively, were largely superior to those of New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Yet, Jeter had almost 1.3 million more votes for the All-Star Game.
Jeter's accomplishments in a Yankee uniform make him a natural fan favorite, much like Ripken during the 1980s and 1990s, and a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Hardy lacks sizzle and, because of his quiet demeanor, doesn't often draw attention.
"I think he's pretty spectacular in his own way," Showalter said. "His substance is his style. His style's not his substance. He'd rather make the play fundamentally sound than look aesthetically pleasing. He doesn't care about flipping something behind his back or plays of the week. First basemen love him. He's got the most accurate arm I've ever had."
All this isn't to say Hardy's perfect. He is prone to offensive streaks. Between May 11 and June 7, he hit just two home runs. During the month of May, he hit .314 and drove in 18 runs, while hitting seven total homers.
He's an unlikely power hitter. Including statistics from games played June 10, Hardy's home run total since June 1, 2011 (39) ranked fifth among all MLB players, behind Texas' Josh Hamilton (46), New York's Curtis Granderson (42), Toronto's Jose Bautista (40) and Atlanta's Dan Uggla (40).
Hardly cooled off during the first week of June, while the team was on a road trip, and drove in just one run during that time. One of the knocks against him, offensively, is that he doesn't take advantage of being up in the count.
Still, as the rest of the infield has been beset by injuries and errors, Hardy has been its rock. Given his success, Hardy has now made it hard for some to visualize Machado's supplanting him any time soon.
"He's a championship shortstop," Showalter said. "That's about as high a compliment as I can give him."
Issue 174: June 2012