One name that keeps popping up in rumors this week is J.J. Hardy. The Orioles shortstop has been mentioned as desired by the Tigers in a three-team deal that would supposedly send Porcello to the Cubs. According to MLB Rumors, that essential off-season site for us baseball groupies, Buck Showalter has said that the Orioles would have to be unbelievably overwhelmed in order to trade Hardy. And on face value, Showalter is smart to say that. Hardy was terrific at short last season. But his offense has become baffling and bit into his value in 2012. Hardy is difficult to digest in one sitting. But it is a Sunday and a day off, so let's tackle it anyway.
The facts are that we can make a case that J.J. Hardy has been the best fielding shortstop since 2005. Of all qualifying shortstops during that time, Hardy has the highest UZR, the third highest fielding percentage and the sixth highest number of assists with 2,000 innings less than, say Rollins ahead of him. He was easily the best shortstop in baseball in 2012. Brendan Ryan might have been better if he played enough to qualify. Hardy led the majors in chances, fielding percentage, assists and total zone runs saved over average. That's like the Triple Crown for fielders, isn't it?
Here is a stat for you: Hardy's 529 assists in 2012 was the 78th highest in major league history. That's pretty impressive. His fielding percentage was the tenth highest ever recorded in a season for a shortstop. That is impressive too. It is easy to see why the Orioles' took off in the second half after Machado joined Hardy on the left side of the infield. Good fielding is invaluable and really reiterates what a dumb move it was by the Brewers and then the Twins to get rid of Hardy when they had him.
After saying all that, we can then pat Buck Showalter on the back and say, "yeah, Buddy, good call." Except J.J. Hardy's fielding was only one facet of his game. There is also batting and running the bases. And Hardy wasn't good in either case and as such, was only the eleventh highest ranked shortstop overall last season in value. Heck, even Hanley was ahead of him.
But Hardy is a good offensive player, isn't he? He has hit over 20 homers four times in his career. The answer is that Hardy has had a couple of effective offensive seasons and a bunch of bad ones. 2012 was not one of the good ones. Fangraphs rates it as -16.4 runs bad. Consider that his on-base percentage was .284 and that his OPS was .671. He batted .238. That doesn't sound like Hardy, does it?
His 2012 futility came after a very good offensive season in 2011 and his WAR shows the difference. His overall game was worth 4.8 fWAR in 2011 but only 2.8 in 2012. Hardy has now had two seasons over an .800 OPS and three seasons under .700. Maddening.
One glaring thing to notice is that his walk percentage has disappeared. Before 2011, he walked in the 7.5 to 9.2 range each season. But that figure sunk to 5.5% in 2011 and went further down to 5.3% of the time in 2012. And he has gone from a somewhat disciplined hitter to one with no discipline at all.
Earlier in Hardy's career, he hardly ever swung at pitches out of the strike zone. The last two seasons, he has done so over 30% of the time. The last two seasons showed him having his highest contact rates on pitches out of the strike zone of his career. That is not a good recipe for good contact. And indeed, he set his career high in grounding into double plays in 2012 with 21. His line drive percentage is low and his pop up rate to the infield is high.
Most players in the majors are somewhat easy to predict. They will have a down season or two, but most of the time, you will see them fall in a range that is somewhat predictable. J.J. Hardy is not one of those offensive players. He is up and down and up and down with wide extremes. That makes Hardy one of the most maddening players in baseball. His fielding has always been top notch and that is the one steady constant of his career. He will save a pitching staff a ton of runs with his glove. But his bat? Well, that will depend on the season.