Let's talk about J.J. Hardy. Hardy, who recently turned 32 and is an impending free agent, is putting together another fine season for the Orioles. He is now in his fourth season in Baltimore, and he's given the O's everything they could have asked for when Andy MacPhail acquired the underappreciated shortstop from the Twins (along with Brendan Harris) in exchange for the low price of Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson.
Hardy has been a steadying presence for a team that had been playing guys like Cesar Izturis, Robert Andino, Julio Lugo, Juan Castro, Alex Cintron, Luis Hernandez, Brandon Fahey, and Freddie Bynum at the position before his arrival. Injuries have been a concern for Hardy at a few points during his career, but he's played in at least 129 games every season for the Orioles and has only gone on the disabled list once (in 2011, with a strained left oblique). For the O's, he's been worth, on average, about 3.5 wins per season.
In 2011, Hardy avoided arbitration with a $5.85 million contract, and he then signed a three-year, $22.25 million extension (a little under $7.5 million per season). Using the table above, let's say Hardy has been worth 14 wins. According to FanGraphs, Hardy has been worth about $67 million for the Orioles in those four seasons. So the Orioles have paid Hardy $28.1 million, and he's been worth nearly 2.5 times that. That's a surplus of nearly $40 million -- an impressive bargain at a key position.
Hardy's skills with the glove are what set him apart, enabling him to still be a useful player even if he struggles with the bat (as he showed in 2012, when he had a wRC+ of just 78). According to Defensive Runs Saved (on Baseball-Reference), Hardy has been at least a +8 defender these past four years and overall is a +76 defender in his career. Per FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, Hardy has had a 6 UZR rating or higher the past four years, and for his career has a 82.2 UZR. That defensive prowess, along with his inconsistent ability to hit for power (with the benefit of that coming from a shortstop), have made him quite valuable.
His defensive numbers are stellar, but his offensive numbers are unusual -- for him, at least. As Stuart noted in July, Hardy has had trouble hitting for power in 2014. Specifically, Hardy has had trouble driving fastballs, an area in which he usually excels. Here are his isolated power numbers per pitch category:
His HR/FB rate (6.2%) will end up being his lowest since 2010, he's not hitting lefties nearly as well as he usually does (74 wRC+ vs. career 109 wRC+), and he's also walking less often and striking out more.
And yet, thanks to an elevated line drive rate (18.4% vs. career 17%) and some good fortune (.330 BABIP vs. career .279), he's managed to keep his numbers close to his career average production (97 wRC+ vs. career 95 wRC+). That combination might not be sustainable at the plate long term, but he's made it work this season.
This singles-hitting version of Hardy isn't necessarily here to stay, but it's worth wondering after the season where his power numbers go from here. It will also be interesting to see if the O's eventually work out a deal to bring Hardy back, or if he departs for another shortstop-hungry team (like the Yankees, perhaps). His next contract will certainly be more expensive. Hardy's playing well, he's relatively healthy, and he'll be a big part of the O's chances to advance in the playoffs.
With a mostly secure 9.5-game lead in the AL East, the O's can focus on the now. At 81-57, they have the second-best record in all of baseball, and they're just two games back of the Angels for the best record. They're playing their best right now, too: 29-15 in the second half, 8-2 in their last 10 games, and a season high run differential of +83. They are firing on all cylinders.
Stats (as of September 4) via FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball. Photo via Keith Allison