Do the O’s have the best SS in the AL East?

By on April 10

Among the many upgrades the O’s made this offseason to their roster, and particularly their infield, none was more dramatic than at shortstop.  For while Cesar Izturis may be slick with the glove, he also has about as much pop in his bat as Brandon Fahey. OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but he did post a .622 OPS in 2010.   However, there were some, including myself, who wanted to keep Izturis and felt you could justify the anemic offense if the defense was truly above average, given the importance of strong defense up the middle. But then, in a shocking turn of events, the question of offense vs defense at shortstop became moot when the O’s traded for a player who was amply skilled with both the glove and the bat: JJ Hardy. 

I was thrilled with the deal the moment I heard about it.  You can start with the fact that the Twins basically gave him to us for a couple throwaway bullpen pitchers, Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey.  Then, there’s the sheer amount of value the O’s got for that ridiculous pittance.  Sure, some of the offensive luster may have worn off since Hardy’s All-Star campaign with the Brewers in ’07, when he hit .277 with 26 HRs.   But after a down year in ’09, Hardy bounced back to post a .268/.320/.714, a respectable line.  Furthermore, he actually posted a  .302/.356/.436 line in 64 games after returning from a wrist injury, suggesting higher offensive potential when healthy.

But really, the best part about JJ Hardy is that you aren’t sacrificing any defense to get that offensive production.  In fact, according to UZR/150, a stat that attempts to quantify the value of defense as the amount of runs a player’s defensive ability saves, Hardy was THE BEST defensive SS in the bigs in 2010, posting a 12.8 UZR/150 in 2010.  That would mean that over a theoretical 150 game defensive season, Hardy’s defense would prevent 13 runs from being scored.  Now, admittedly, some argue UZR is a flawed stat that can produce some questionable defensive evaluations, but this is hardly the only defensive metric to rate Hardy above average.  In 2008, Hardy posted a 1.6 dWAR, which ranked him 2nd among all defensive players in the NL. This means that Hardy’s defense alone was worth 1-2 wins to the team, which in my opinion really goes to show just how undervalued good defense can be.

All that being said, I think we can all agree JJ Hardy represents a dramatic improvement for the Orioles at SS. What I’m wondering though is whether his arrival also demands a total reseeding of the AL East SS pecking order, with him at the top.  If you just spit out your drink, I’m sorry.  I know that for anyone to suggest there is a better SS in the AL East than the almighty Derek Jeter is a crime punishable by death in NY, but here at ESB, we like to live dangerously.  Let’s take look at the rest of the current AL East shortstops and see how Hardy stacks up.

Marco Scutaro, BOS .275 .333 .388 .721 92 -3.3
Derek Jeter, NYY .270 .340 .370 .710 90 -5.4
Reid Brignac, TAM .256 .307 .385 .692 91 3.0
Yunel Escobar, TOR .256 .337 .318 .655 80 4.2
JJ Hardy, BAL .268 .320 .394 .714 93 8.1

Offensively, at least at this point in their careers, the AL East shortstops are eerily similar.  One stat that jumps out at you is just how bunched up they all are in OPS+ , a stat because that takes OPS and normalizes it to a base of 100, where 100 represents league average production.  So the closer to or higher above 100 you are as a player, the better.  As you can see, JJ does have the highest OPS+ of the bunch, but not by a significant or worthy margin. But that’s a positive trend for the O’s, since Izturis posted a 50 OPS+ in 2010, which was good for last among AL East shortstops by a wide, wide margin.

So since they can’t be differentiated offensively, defense will obviously be the key determinant.  Though I mentioned that UZR has its own credibility issues, if we’re going to use it to evaluate JJ, it’s only fair to apply it to these guys as well.   Keeping in mind that a negative UZR means a player’s defense actually costs his team runs, two players jump out on this list: Jeter and Scutaro.  The poor ratings for these two players aren’t particularly surprising, and in Jeter’s case, well known in baseball circles, except apparently Gold Glove voters.  Meanwhile, the rest of the group all boast positive UZR ratings. But in this case, the defensive metrics do show some separation, with Hardy coming out clearly on top, bolstering his reputation as an above average defensive player.

Putting it all together, if Hardy is as good or slightly better than any other AL East shortstop offensively, and definitively better than any of them defensively, it would seem a very solid argument could be made that he is the best shortstop in the AL East.  And if the O’s continue their winning ways and the team continues to get national attention, JJ may be justly recognized as being that caliber of player.  But regardless of whether or not that happens, I’m going to enjoy watching him make great plays up the middle and smacking doubles down the line just the same.  As Buck would say, I’m glad he’s ours.

6 Responses to “Do the O’s have the best SS in the AL East?”

  1. Adam
    Adam says:

    Wow. I didn’t realize that his numbers compared so favorably with the other shortstops in the AL East. As you’ve laid it out here, I’d say it’s pretty fair to argue that he is the best. I just hope we can find a way to keep him healthy. If we can do that, I’d love to have him here for a long time.

  2. Casey says:

    Adam I think you said it right. Say what you want about Jeter’s defensive ability, but the man has been supremely durable. On the other hand, a player that can’t stay healthy is equivalent to a 39-man bench for the price of a 40-man bench.

  3. Bill says:

    Mark, I understand its awesome to say you have the best of something. But look at the other shortshops in the AL East. Not a whole lot of competition. Now if you wanted to talk about best young pitching talent in AL East… now with Boston, Toronto and Tampa, that is something you would want to brag about. JJ Hardy is a nice player. 2 win SS’s don’t exactly grow on trees… but meh.

  4. Mark
    Mark says:

    Bill –

    First of all, I think there are many who from the outside looking in wouldn’t say JJ Hardy is the best SS in the AL East, or even close. I’m glad you are knowledgeable enough about baseball to recognize that possibility before reading the post, but given that JJ Hardy isn’t exactly a household name, I thought it’d be cool to show that he does in fact stack up with the other shortstops in the division. Truth be told, if he puts together offensive seasons more like he had in Milwaukee (admittedly very unlikely), and he keeps playing great defense, he could make a run at being the best SS in the AL, but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself.

    But just as important was the fact of just how dramatic an upgrade over Izturis he is, which his comparability, or superiority, to other SS in the division further underscores.

    I personally actually didn’t know the answer to the questions posed in this article before writing it, so it was truly a learning experience for me, and I just hoped it will be for others as well.

    As always, thanks for reading.


  5. Bill says:

    I enjoy the blog a lot. There is no doubt that Hardy could be a 4-5 win guy. He has been in the past. That would certainly put him at the top of the AL in the SS category. For some strange reason, it seems that all the shortstop talent is in the NL. Hardy could easily have the best year of any AL shortstop (unless I’m forgetting someone good?) and be the 4th best shortstop in the NL East alone. Just a weird quirk.
    Keep up the good work. Go Orioles!

  6. Paul O. says:

    It is pretty evident that Hardy is an amazing player. It is just too bad that we have to take away some positivity points for Part-Time players. My favorite players are guys that hang in there 155 games or more per season. ALA Markakis, and Roberts up until last year. I’ve spent a lot of time predicting how good someone would/could be if given a fresh chance at 162 games. Think Jeffrey Hammonds, Darnell Mcdonald, Ryan Minor, Noland Reimold, Adam Loewen, Hayden Penn, etc. I know for a fact that Hardy would produce 40+ doubles this season if he played it out, and his defense(which is the main topic here) would be stellar. He has good defensive positioning.

    “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if…” has been played out for me. I need to see someone perform here and now. Yes, I’m venting about our injured players instead of discussing defense.
    Money Ball has turned these guys into major investments. Biting ones nails too short could be cause for a trip to the 15 day DL. This is almost as annoying as the people I know that collect unemployment for years on end when I gotta bust my tail every day.
    I’m no ball player, but the condition of my body does affect the work I can do. I go to work with 2 bulging discs in my lower back, a pinched sciatic nerve, and arthritis in my dominate hand. I choose to hit the gym for an hour, then work 8 hours at job 1, then 4 hours at job 2. Rinse and repeat. Baltimore fans are blue collar guys. We expect our players to man up and work. Guys like Cal and Jeter have spoiled us. I love watching those guys play. They show up, they work. Nuff Said.

    Now for something positive…Reynolds is batting well over .250!

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