J.J. Hardy

J.J. Hardy was an indifferent student, but the Orioles shortstop is at the head of the class in terms of baseball intelligence. (Tom Szczerbowski, USA TODAY Sports / June 21, 2013)

The next time you go to Camden Yards, keep your eye on him, the way he shifts a few feet before every batter to maximize his odds for an easy path to the ball, the way he avoids contorting himself into an awkward throwing position.

Try not to be distracted by the 21-year-old to his right, doing a pretty fine Brooks Robinson imitation. This isn't about virtuosity. It's about watching a man apply his mind to a craft so he can do it adeptly play after play, inning after inning, week after week.

That's J.J. Hardy.

Compare the veteran shortstop to the other Orioles who will start Tuesday's All-Star Game, and you won't find Chris Davis' mythic power or Adam Jones' surface ferocity. Dependable is the more likely descriptor for Hardy, the fulcrum of his club's league-best infield.

Maybe you have to be a baseball obsessive like manager Buck Showalter to appreciate all that he brings.

But even Showalter will tell you he didn't grasp the full Hardy until he watched him every day. For one, he hadn't been exposed to the shortstop's keen intelligence.

"The last thing we do in our advance meetings, after we go through everything, is ask J.J., 'What do you think?'" Showalter says. "It's like having a coach on the field. He gets situations. I could tell you 100 stories. Man, he's sharp."

"Steady and consistent"

Before a recent home game, Hardy offered a skeptical smirk when told the subject of conversation would be his baseball intellect.

He says he became a careful student out of necessity, when he got to the minors and realized he was no longer the most athletic guy on the diamond.

"There's got to be something where I can separate myself from everybody else," he remembers thinking. "And I just started paying attention to all the little things."

It's easy to underestimate Hardy's athleticism because he doesn't play shortstop balletically, like an Ozzie Smith. But he remains king of the table in the Orioles' ping-pong-obsessed clubhouse, and if you want to see those reflexes at work, just watch how easily he gloves poor hops.

"He's known for just being steady and consistent, which he is. That's his trademark," says MASN television analyst Mike Bordick, himself quite a shortstop in his playing days. "But he makes some unbelievably flashy plays. And those are the ones where you say, 'Oh my God.' He's got a lot of plays in his bag of tricks, even though his focus is to make everything as routine as possible."

Bordick says Hardy, who won a Gold Glove last year, is operating in an ideal space where all the knowledge he's built from studying off the diamond naturally informs his physical movements on it.

"It almost seems that at the point of contact, J.J. can put his glove right where he thinks the ball's going to be," Bordick says. "So very rarely is he ever out of position. He seems to be the Zen master right now."

The numbers back up the praise. By every advanced metric, the 30-year-old Hardy has rated as a very good shortstop since he debuted with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2005. By most measures, last year was his best with the glove.

"This works. This doesn't"

Hardy comes from an athletic Arizona family. His mother, Susie, was a top golfer at the University of Arizona. His father, Mark, was a professional tennis player and still teaches the sport.

But the Hardys agree that mom and dad never pushed J.J. or his siblings to play, never tried to mold the kids' minds so they'd be perfect for sports. Mark Hardy says that if anything, he was surprised at J.J.'s absolute composure when making rapid decisions as a 9-year-old playing against older boys.

"He had a sense, even at 9 years old, where everything was around him," Mark says. "And he always seemed to make the right decision."