By Childs Walker
The Baltimore Sun
6:57 PM EDT, July 12, 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."
J.J. was an indifferent student, more inclined to apply his mind to sports. Even as a kid, he had to understand why he was doing something rather than blindly following instructions. "He analyzes things in terms of right and wrong," Mark says. "This works. This doesn't. Is this going to work in this situation?"
He says part of the reason his son has enjoyed Baltimore is his faith that Showalter makes all decisions based on sound logic.
The Brewers drafted Hardy in the second round out of Tucson's Sabino High School. Like many minor leaguers, he faced a shock when he struggled to hit .240 in rookie ball after coasting to .450 averages in high school. In his case, that shock inspired a deeper curiosity about every aspect of baseball.
Any philosophy a coach espoused, he turned over in his mind. Any habit a veteran displayed, he observed.
"I think it started in the minor leagues," he says of his approach. "Paying attention to the guys in your division, when you've seen them bat enough times, you see where they hit the ball and what their swing might do. I started playing right-handed hitters maybe a little more to pull, playing left-handed hitters a little more up the middle, making it to where the plays were more routine instead of having to run as far as I could to get a ball."
He practiced making the routine play over and over and over. Through pre-pitch positioning, he believed he could be in the right spot to field a grounder head on that other guys might try to backhand. Often, he based his positioning on some bit of data, gleaned from pregame study of extensive computer files available in every major league clubhouse.
His labors paid off, says former Orioles second baseman Rich Dauer, who was Hardy's infield coach when he came up with the Brewers at age 22. The first day Dauer saw Hardy, he thought, "Mark Belanger!"
Like the Orioles' great shortstop of the 1970s, Hardy never seemed to have to dive. He always seemed to get the runner by a step with a perfect overhand throw. Dauer saw how astutely the young Hardy applied information from pregame talks to game situations.
"Some guys, even after a few years, I'd have to tell them where to go on every pitch," Dauer says. "But he was one of the best guys I ever had at picking up what he was told and taking it to the next level on his own."
Veteran Brewers third baseman Jeff Cirillo befriended Hardy, impressed that the rookie maintained his defensive consistency despite a wretched batting slump. "That can break a young player," says Cirillo, now a scout with the Los Angeles Angels. "But it tells you a lot that they thought enough of his character to never send him down, even when he was hitting .180."
Cirillo remembers Hardy as the most self-possessed in a group of young stars that included Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks. He says he would point to Hardy as a model for young infielders: "Absolutely. Watch his pre-game set-up. Watch his routine. When there's a ground ball, I'll always take my chances with J.J."
"You learn from things"
For all his precocity, Hardy's path was not easy. He fought through severe depression when a shoulder injury cost him the 2004 season. And despite becoming a popular All-Star for the Brewers, he was shipped to the Minnesota Twins when young shortstop Alcides Escobar came up behind him. Injuries undermined his one season with the Twins, who traded him to the Orioles for a pair of bullpen prospects.
He was actually the Orioles' second choice on the shortstop market, after slap-hitting Jason Bartlett. The club wanted anything resembling steady production at shortstop and regarded Hardy as perhaps a one-year patch. He responded with 30 home runs and a presence on and off the field that transcended Showalter's most optimistic hopes.
"He's one of those teammates you want to please," the Orioles manager says. "He takes a lot of pride in the infield's defense, not just his. Guys want to please him."
Hardy signed a three-year extension with the Orioles despite knowing that Manny Machado might come up to displace him as Escobar had done in Milwaukee. Hardy earned respect around the league with his handling of both situations, befriending the younger infielders and offering them guidance.
"I'm not going to be a guy who's going to be quiet and look at him, thinking 'This is the guy who could kick me out of Baltimore,'" Hardy says of Machado. "He's a friend, and anything I can do to help him get better, I'm going to do. That's just the way I've always gone about it."
Instead of replacing Hardy, Machado has adapted to third base, and the pair has created one of the sport's most dynamic defensive partnerships.
Offense is always less of a given for Hardy, who batted .238 last year despite playing the best defense of his career. He freely admits that he has two brains as a player. If the fielding one is cool and cerebral, the offensive one is more about naked aggression.
"There's guys that think a lot, and it makes them really good," he says of his offensive approach. "And then there's guys who think too much and it starts playing games in their minds. For me, yeah, I think I'm best when I'm not overthinking everything."
The key, he says, is not to let what happened at the plate stick in his mind when he's at shortstop. He rates that one of his areas of greatest improvement.
Always, he tries to make sure his brain is compensating for any physical edge lost to age.
"Maybe the batter's a really fast runner, and I might play two steps closer just so that the ball will get to me quicker and I don't have to rush as much," he says. "When I was younger, I might not have needed to even think about that, because I had a better arm. You learn from things, and you try not to make the mistakes you've made in the past."
The J.J. Hardy file
Born: Aug. 19, 1982
Hometown: Tucson, Ariz.
Parents: Mark and Susie Hardy
Drafted: In second round in 2001 by Milwaukee Brewers
Debut: April 4, 2005
Traded to Orioles: From Minnesota Twins on Dec. 9, 2010 for pitchers Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobson
By the numbers:
1 — Gold Glove, won in 2012
2 — All-Star selections, 2007 and 2013
30 — career-high in homers, set for Orioles in 2011
244 — league-leading putout total from 2012
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