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Remembering the good times for J.J. Hardy with the Orioles

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It appears as if J.J. Hardy’s time with the Orioles is nearing an end. Here’s an ode to Hardy and his magnificent abilities on the baseball field.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

J.J. Hardy is unlikely to return to the Orioles for the 2018 season. He has been in serious decline with some injury issues over the last couple of seasons. The Orioles have a $2 million buyout that they will be exercising because Hardy did not reach his plate appearance threshold to guarantee his option.

These next handful of games are likely to be Hardy’s last few game in an Orioles uniform. So, I thought I’d fulfill a tweet of mine from a year ago, in which I vowed a 4,000 word love letter to Hardy’s defense. I promise to keep this to under 4,000 words, though it may get close.

On the date of that tweet, September 14th, 2016, the Orioles were playing the Red Sox in Fenway Park. With a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the 6th inning Xander Bogaerts hits a ground ball to J.J. Hardy and this is what happened next.

It’s a standard J.J. Hardy play in which he makes the miraculous and the spectacular look ordinary. By the way, that 1-0 margin was the final score in that game.

Hardy was acquired by the Orioles before the 2011 season from the Minnesota Twins for Jim Hoey. Hoey pitched only 24.2 innings for the Twins, posting a 5.47 ERA. After that 2011 season, Hoey never pitched at the MLB level again. Hardy has gone on to play seven seasons with the O’s. All hail Andy MacPhail.

In his time in an Orioles uniform, Hardy went to one All Star Game in 2013. He also won a Silver Slugger award that year. On top of that, Hardy racked up three consecutive Gold Gloves between 2012 and 2014. He also made the All Star Game with the Brewers back in 2007.

Hardy began his career with some injury struggles and missed large chunks of time for multiple seasons before arriving in Baltimore. However, with the Orioles he played nearly every day between 2011 and 2014. Yet, as he reached his 30s, as many baseball players do, he began to wear down.

The 2011 season in which he arrived happened to be his best as an Oriole. On a bad Orioles team he hit .269/.310/.491 good for a .801 OPS with 30 home runs. He posted his career high 4.4 fWAR in that 2011 season. Eventually his bat began to slow down. After three consecutive years of over 20 home runs, Hardy never hit more than 10 after 2013. Again, being a 30 year old baseball player has its disadvantages.

When he was at his best, few hitters, and even fewer shortstops, could turn on the middle in or up and in pitch like Hardy. Orioles fans were treated to one final example of this when Hardy picked up a home run for old time’s sake in his unofficial farewell game in Baltimore.

His offensive output was largely based on his ability to hit home runs, a rarity for shortstops for much of his career. Between 2011 and 2016, Hardy hit 103 home runs. That was good for fifth best among shortstops over that period of time. Of the players who were ahead of him on the list, some aren’t even shortstops any more. Hardy outlasted players like Ian Desmond and Hanley Ramirez at the position.

Alright, that’s enough about his offense, which was the solid part of his game. Let’s get to the electric part of his game—the glove. Here’s a GIF of a magnificent double play Hardy records all on his own so I can keep your attention.

This highlight encapsulates all that was great about Hardy on defense. From 2011 until now a ground ball to the shortstop felt like as sure of an out as a strike out did. That does not make much mathematical sense, but Hardy could get you to question what you knew.

Hardy is not very fast, he cannot jump all that high, and he probably is not the strongest guy on the field. However, he is still an amazing athlete and has what I like to refer to as baseball athleticism. He has a lightning quick first step, unbelievable reaction time, and the ability to always have his body in the right position to make the play. Another GIF to illustrate the point:

Look as he has to dive to get this ball, a rarity in Hardy plays because he is almost always able to get to the ball, can only come up to his knees, but still manages to put his weight back, get his arm over the top, and make a flawless throw to grab the runner by a full step. That is an unbelievable play executed over mere seconds—if even that.

You can look up J.J. Hardy defensive highlights online and find lots and lots of them, but they basically all look the same. This was his greatest skill. Making the unbelievable believable. He was always in a position to make the perfect throw. There are not jump throws in the Hardy canon, or off balance tosses, and there only a few highlights with throws from his knees.

Hardy never had to resort to that stuff. He could always get to the ball, always get his weight back, always get his arm in the right slot, and always get the runner. That’s what made him remarkable.

This GIF is a bit more mundane. He catches a bullet from Adam Jones and makes the perfect tag to grab the runner going to second base. His feet are perfectly placed, the glove is at perfect height, he uses the power of the throw to slap his glove on to the runner. It’s perfect.

Perhaps no one was better at turning the double play. You can read more about that from this article over at Fangraphs from 2014 and or you can look at the below highlight from that very same article.

He is perfectly set up at the bag to receive the throw from the pitcher, as he catches the ball his body is already throwing the ball. All he has to do is take the thing out of his glove, he has basically already done the rest. And that is what I mean about baseball athleticism.

J.J. Hardy does fit the stereotypical mold of the strong, fast, high jumping athlete. But, he was supremely athletic in the ways that baseball demands. He had an innate ability to be in the perfect position to make the play. He knew where all parts of his body were, where the bag was, where his teammates were, and that you just ordered a beer in the stands.

He used his quick reaction time, incredible hands, body control, and awareness to be one of the best shortstops of his generation. This is perhaps no better proven by the fact that Hardy’s ability to avoid errors netted 29.1 runs from 2011 to 2017. The next closest is Jimmy Rollins with only 25.6. He lapped the field in not making mistakes, which was his greatest ability.

If you go all the back to 2005, the year Hardy debuted in MLB, he is the number one shortstop for defensive value with 172.4 runs. Andrelton Simmons is second with 132.6 and Rollins is third with 108.4. Here is another area where he is lapping the field. In my estimation, Hardy is one the best defensive shortstops to ever play the game.

Hardy has been one of the most dependable players I have ever watched. I’ll miss him and as Mark wrote on Monday it is always sad to see your guys go. I’m not sure where Hardy’s career will take him next. It would be cool to see him retire as an Oriole and he is a mortal lock for the Orioles Hall of Fame, but I have to think a team out there would be willing to give a one year deal.

Regardless, he’ll be one of my all time favorite Orioles. Here’s one last Hardy GIF for you to enjoy.