In many ways, J.J. Hardy is the ideal Platonic form of the modern Oriole: He maintains a mediocre batting average, doesn't walk, hits lots of home runs, and plays fantastic defense. Thus the Hardy – O’s marriage just makes too much sense to end prematurely.
Ever since Andy MacPhail acquired Hardy and Brendan Harris for Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey prior to the 2011 season in one of the most lopsided trades in recent history (the Bedard trade also comes to mind for O’s fans), Hardy has blossomed into one of, if not the best, shortstops in the American League.
Offensively, Hardy’s plus power for his position is most notable. He smacked 30 home runs in 2011, followed by seasons of 22 and 25, respectively. That figure fell to just nine this season, but Steamer projects him to rebound with 17 longballs next year. While his .259 batting average has been close to league average during his four seasons in Baltimore, he loses value with a subpar OBP of .301. In total, Hardy has been a slightly below-average hitter over the past four years, with wRC+s of 113, 78, 100, and 90, respectively, although those figures are decent for his position.
Moving forward, Steamer projects his total offensive performance in 2015 to slightly exceed his 2014 performance, mainly because of the aforementioned rebound in the power department. The projection system also forecasts a slight drop in his average and OBP, largely due to a regression of his .317 BABIP to his career .278 mark, as well as increased age (he's 31). The complete offensive package gives us a hitter with a .303 wOBA and 92 wRC+, figures that are below league average but solid for an everyday shortstop.
Defensively, Hardy is a consistently great performer by any metric. He committed just 37 errors, won two Gold Gloves, and posted a fielding percentage of at least .990 twice in his four seasons with the O’s. Advanced fielding numbers are equally kind: Hardy has posted at least 8 DRS in all four of his seasons with the Birds, highlighted by a spectacular 18 DRS in 2012. UZR tells us that Hardy was worth 13.9 runs above average in 2014 and 42.1 over the past four years; the latter figure closely resembles to the 44 DRS that BIS assigns the Baltimore shortstop.
For a bit of context on the defensive numbers, Hardy was the only qualified shortstop in the American League with a positive DRS total in 2014, and his 10 DRS rank fourth in all of baseball. He does even better in UZR, as his 13.9 mark in that regard trailed only Andrelton Simmons. Hardy is a shoe-in for a third consecutive Gold Glove, and if it weren’t for Simmons, he would have a legitimate case for the title of best defensive shortstop in baseball.
The new extension of three years and $40 million will result in Hardy earning an average of $13.3 million per year, which seems light on a pure dollars-per-WAR scale. With a going rate of ~$7 million per WAR on the open market, Hardy will have to post just over six WAR over the course of the deal for this to provide Baltimore with market value. Hardy has posted at least six WAR in every pair of seasons since 2010 (i.e. 2010 and 2011 combined, 2011 and 2012 combined, etc), and is projected to post 2.7 fWAR in 2015. From this perspective, the contract looks like a very safe investment by the Orioles. Additionally, the contract contains a vesting option for a fourth year that is based on a presently-unknown number of plate appearances.
Adding to the value of the contract, Hardy has been durable and extremely consistent since arriving in Baltimore. He has averaged 147 games per season and avoided significant injuries, making him a strong bet to stay on the field during his new contract. As for consistency, Hardy has posted at least 2.7 fWAR and 3.2 bWAR in each of his four seasons for the O’s. Some of his offensive numbers have fluctuated, but a 2.7-WAR player is a very strong baseline, even accounting for a bit of age-related regression over the course of the contract. There is very little chance that this contract becomes bad for Baltimore, as Hardy’s defensive chops will give him value even if his offense falters.
For a few comparisons, the Erick Aybar extension, Jhonny Peralta contract, and Stephen Drew contract (or, perhaps more accurately, escapade) are relevant. Aybar agreed to his four-year, $35 million extension, which covers 2013 through 2016, during the beginning of the 2012 season. Since then, he has provided great value for the Angels, including a 4.1-WAR campaign this season. Aybar and Hardy provide value in slightly different ways, but both were relatively safe investments as solid defenders with some offensive ability. Hardy has a bit higher average annual value, but has also been a slightly better player (not to mention contract inflation over the past two years).
Jhonny Peralta surprised everyone last offseason by agreeing to a four-year, $53 million free agent deal with the Cardinals. Though it seemed expensive at the time for a hitter whose offensive production was largely driven by a .374 BABIP and a seemingly declining defensive profile, the 32-year-old Peralta proved everyone wrong by posting the highest fWAR total among all shortstops this season. It would be unrealistic to expect Hardy to experience that type of jump, but this is another player who is outperforming a contract of similar value. This is the best-case scenario for the Orioles.
The final comparison is Stephen Drew, from this past offseason. Saddled with a qualifying offer, which he declined, Drew could not find a suitable club until the Red Sox offered him what essentially amounted to the prorated portion of the qualifying offer in mid-May. The interesting part of this situation is that Drew and Hardy each posted 3.4 fWAR during their walk year, so while Drew is more injury prone and less consistent, these players are not that different in value. By signing now with the O’s, Hardy avoids the qualifying offer saga that could have hindered his ultimate payday (assuming the Orioles would have made Hardy a qualifying offer and he would have declined, of course).
The bottom line is that the Orioles did well by extending a core player at a reasonable price during a window of contention. By keeping Hardy, Baltimore will presumably continue to play Manny Machado at third base, giving the Orioles three more years of the league’s best left side infield defense. The Orioles were also rumored to be looking to extend Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz, although one has to wonder whether this deal negatively affects their chances of completing an extension with one of those players. Regardless, the Orioles now have all of their up-the-middle players, Adam Jones, Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, and at the very least, Caleb Joseph, locked up for the next few years. The Orioles have a good chance to continue to contend in the coming seasons, and therefore Dan Duquette and the O’s should be commended for keeping an essential player on that contender in town at a reasonable cost.
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Dan Weigel is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and an Author of Minor League Ball. You can find his tweets at @DanWiggles38