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J.J. Hardy’s 2016 a welcome return to health and stability

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J.J. Hardy is no spring chicken, but his 2016 was a pleasant bounce back as he continued to impress defensively.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Born on August 19, 1982, J.J. Hardy was the oldest player to put on an Orioles uniform this season. He was also the oldest regular shortstop in the American League this season. Shortstop isn’t generally where you want to see your oldest player, but Hardy manned the position better than most of his A.L. counterparts.

The 2015 season was, without a doubt, the worst season of Hardy’s baseball career. He couldn’t get healthy, he had his worst year by far at the plate, and even his defense wasn’t as top notch as usual. That led to a lot of questions about what kind of value he could provide in 2016, and it turns out that a healthy JJ can help this team quite a bit. And that’s even with his troubles at the plate.

Defense First

There were two shortstops in the A.L. this season that were heads and shoulders above the rest of the field defensively. Francisco Lindor, 22, and Andrelton Simmons, 27, did things on the field that no other A.L. shortstops could top. Hardy was arguably the third-best shortstop in the A.L. after these two.

In Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Hardy was good for +6 at the position, fourth best after Lindor, Simmons, and Troy Tulowitzki. And in UZR/150 Hardy put up a mark of +13.6. FanGraphs labels +10 as Great and +15 as Gold Glove Caliber, so that’s not too shabby for the oldest Oriole. In that stat Hardy ranked behind only Lindor and Simmons.

Additionally, Hardy provides a stability in the infield that I cannot quantify, but which I know exists. When he missed stretches of time over the past few seasons things just did not go as well for the Orioles, defensively. It’s of course not unusual for a team’s shortstop to be the leader in the infield, and it’s evident that is who Hardy is. Something about his (veteran) presence keeps things running smoothly.

Offense Last

As good as Hardy’s defense is, he was far from one of the most valuable shortstops in the league thanks to his below-average offense. He has always been OBP-challenged, but the power he once had that counterbalanced that is gone and is not coming back. That being said, he did produce at a level that made it worth keeping him in the lineup, something he did not do in 2015.

Overall Hardy hit .269/.309/.407. A .309 OBP is not impressive, but it’s Hardy’s highest mark since 2011, when his reached .310. And it was a huge improvement over the horrifying .253 OBP he put up last year.

Hardy seems to have settled in as a 10-ish HR guy, as this year he hit 9 to go with 8 in 2015 and 9 in 2014. That’s a huge decline from the 20+ HR power he showed prior to 2014, which was always such a big part of his offensive game.

Within the division, Hardy paled in comparison to Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox. Bogaerts put up an fWAR (which includes both offense and defense) of 4.7, quite a bit more than Hardy’s 2.3. Didi Gregorious of the Yankees and Troy Tulowitzki of the Blue Jays also came in above Hardy, but barely. Gregorious put up 2.7 and Tulowitzki 2.8.

The Best Backup SS in the Bigs

A foul ball off the foot on May 1st landed Hardy on the disabled list for 44 games. While he was out, one of those games was started by journeyman Paul Janish. For the other 43, Buck Showalter moved young star Manny Machado to shortstop, the position he played in the minors.

Machado continued his hot offense at his new position and looked good on defense as well, looking comfortable at the position almost immediately. When Hardy returned from his injury on June 18th, Machado slid back over to third base and the two played side-by-side for the rest of the season. And really it’s more fun that way, don’t you think?

Looking ahead

Hardy is under contract next year for $14 million, so barring any unforeseen circumstances he will be the Opening Day shortstop in 2017. His contract also has a team option for 2018 that will automatically be picked up if Hardy has 600 plate appearances in 2017 and he passes a post-’17 physical.

It’s hard to imagine a world where that option gets picked up. When the 2017 season ends Hardy will be 35 years old. He has only had >600 PA twice since 2009, the last coming in 2013. And even if he somehow manages to creep past 600, it seems like the Orioles could fail him on the physical if they wanted. Remember he has that torn labrum he never got repaired, for starters.

At this point it’s too soon to tell what the Orioles might do in a post-Hardy world. If he has a productive ‘17 maybe they’ll decline his option and bring him back on a cheaper contract. This might especially happen if prospect Ryan Mountcastle continues to develop but isn’t ready for 2018 (he just finished a season at low-A Delmarva).

Or, if the Orioles extend Machado in the offseason they could possibly move him over to shortstop if there are better options at the time for third base. I personally think this is unlikely, but we have all seen that Machado is capable of handling the position.