When many fans look back fondly on the Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette-led Orioles — a squad that won more games than any other American League team from 2012 to 2016 — they remember the key moves that brought winning baseball back to Baltimore.
The deals that molded the Orioles’ strong foundation were orchestrated by Andy MacPhail before Duquette arrived, including one of the best trades in franchise history: sending Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners in exchange for a five-player package that most notably featured Adam Jones and Chris Tillman.
No trade was more important than the Bedard deal in helping to shape the Orioles’ direction for the next decade. But a team as successful as the O’s were (before the wheels fell off in 2018) is more than any single deal or acquisition. Perfection is impossible, so sustained success requires many major and minor wins.
One of those wins occurred a little less than three years after the Bedard deal and solidified the shortstop position for the Orioles for nearly all of Showalter’s tenure: acquiring J.J. Hardy from the Minnesota Twins. With Hardy having been elected to the Orioles Hall of Fame and a ceremony to honor him coming in August, it’s worth revisiting his O’s career.
The Orioles only had to go a few years between their last quality shortstop, Miguel Tejada, before Hardy entered the picture, but it seemed longer than that. During his four-year stint in Baltimore, Tejada was easily one of the best parts of some very bad teams. But from 2008-2010, when Tejada was gone and Hardy had yet to arrive, the Orioles’ shortstop production was the worst in all of baseball. Their shortstops’ collective fWAR (FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement) was -3.7, nearly 2.5 wins worse than the next closest team.
Looking at the cast of characters the O’s tried during that span, it isn’t surprising to see those dreadful numbers. The 2008 season was far and away the worst, with Juan Castro, Alex Cintron, Freddie Bynum, Brandon Fahey, Luis Hernandez and (briefly) Eider Torres receiving playing time. The next two years, César Izturis took over primary shortstop duties, and his replacement-level production, mainly due to his glove, looked herculean by comparison.
Needless to say, none of those shortstops gave the O’s what they really needed. In 2011, Hardy did just that. He posted a 113 wRC+, the second-best mark of his career and the best he’d put up for the Orioles, to go along with his typically excellent defense. In four of the next five seasons, he finished with an fWAR of at least 2.1, while 2015 (0.0 fWAR) was particularly rough as he battled shoulder and groin injuries.
Hardy fares well when looking at O’s shortstops since the club arrived in Baltimore in 1954. Cal Ripken Jr. is obviously in a class all by himself. But among shortstops with at least 500 plate appearances, Hardy ranks fourth in fWAR (14.4), tied for seventh in wRC+ (85), third in home runs (107), tied for third in runs batted in (385) and third in games played (889).
He also holds his own compared to all shortstops during his O’s career. From 2011-2017, Hardy is tied for 10th among 63 qualified shortstops in fWAR (14.4), second in FanGraphs’ defense rating (behind Andrelton Simmons), second in Ultimate Zone Rating (again behind Simmons) and third in Defensive Runs Saved (behind both Simmons and Brandon Crawford). His outstanding defense was recognized with three consecutive Gold Glove awards from 2012 to 2014. He deserved more.
Perfectly suited next to Manny Machado at third base, Hardy helped form one of the best left sides in the big leagues. Machado’s otherworldly range and ridiculous highlights at third were one of a kind. But Hardy had his own calling card: rarely making mistakes and always seeming to be in the right spot at the right time with great positioning and anticipation.
While Hardy would never be called the most athletic infielder of all time, he was adept at going to his left and right, along with getting rid of the ball quickly and accurately. His unique fielding style of keeping his throwing arm away from his glove until he secured the ball was efficient and made you wonder why more infielders didn’t adopt it. And his smooth, swift tags at second base where he’d drop the glove on unsuspecting base thieves seemed effortless.
As often happens, the end of his Orioles career didn’t go as planned. During the 2014 postseason, the O’s inked Hardy to a three-year, $40 million extension. He went on to appear in 114, 115, and 73 games, respectively, in those three seasons after playing at least 129 games in each of the previous four seasons. He dealt with a fractured foot in 2016 and a broken wrist in 2017, all the while battling frequent back pain. He only played well in 2016, finishing with an fWAR of 2.1 and a wRC+ of 90. In 2017, in what would be his last major-league season, he wasn’t himself at the plate or in the field, and he finished with an fWAR of -0.8.
With so many positives, though, there’s no reason to dwell on the negative. The far-from-fleet-footed Hardy scored from first base on Delmon Young’s double in Game 2 of the 2014 American League Division Series, far and away the top moment for the Orioles in quite some time. He hit two home runs around Pesky’s Pole in Fenway Park during a memorable 2016 win. And not only did he get a standing ovation in the O’s final home game in 2017, but he homered for good measure.
In a 2012 interview with David Laurila of FanGraphs, Hardy described his personal style this way: “I’d characterize my style as not having much style. I try to just catch the ball and throw the ball. I don’t try to be flashy. I just try to make every play that I can. If it’s hit in my direction, I expect to make the play.”
Hardy was flashier in the field than he’d give himself credit for, as he often made difficult plays look routine. His skill set at shortstop was something the O’s desperately needed, and he came around at just the right time.
Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is an offensive metric in which 100 is the league average and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles