The two weeks since the Orioles lost Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy have felt largely the same for the team — late, home run-fueled wins and an air of invincibility at home — even if it's all occurring without their leader in the infield.
With those two weeks down and more on tap as Hardy's fractured left foot heals, it seems that if anything brings down the fortunes of the first-place Orioles (23-13), it will not be the shuffling required in Hardy's absence.
An easy transition for Platinum Glove third baseman Manny Machado to his new home at shortstop, plus the adequate play of Ryan Flaherty and Pedro Alvarez at third base and Paul Janish in reserve at shortstop, all have pleased manager Buck Showalter.
"We have a lot of good options," he said. "Manny's done a good job with it. I think sometimes people take it for granted. I don't. It's tough, and I know everybody's looking forward to J.J. getting back. But to have the number of options we have has been encouraging."
When the Orioles learned Hardy would be out for about two months, their path forward without him looked set. They recalled Flaherty from a minor league assignment and slotted him in the lineup at shortstop for the first game without Hardy, only for Machado to meet with manager Buck Showalter to get that changed.
Since then, Machado has been the everyday shortstop, with his only time back at third base during a doubleheader in which Janish got a start at short.
Offensively, Machado has been hardly disappointing, though he was hitting .350/.407/.660 with seven home runs before Hardy's injury and a slump this past week has caused him to hit .298/.340/.638 since the injury. That's still plenty good for a shortstop, but it's been his transition defensively that has been most encouraging.
In 122 innings at shortstop, Machado has just one throwing error and rates among the game's best defensive shortstops. Defensive metrics are volatile and hard to trust in small samples, but are generally worthwhile.
By the Ultimate Zone Rating, which assigns values off game situations and batted ball type to every ball hit, then ascribes that value to the fielder based on whether an average defender at his position should have fielded it, Machado ranks just behind Hardy on a full-season prorated basis.
UZR is difficult to compare over short samples, so the rate stat UZR/150 projects a player's UZR over 150 games to simulate a full season. In 188 innings, Hardy ranked fourth among shortstops with at least 100 innings with a 26.4 UZR/150. Machado is fifth with 19.5. Overall, the Orioles' shortstops rank third in the league with a 22.5 UZR/150. (All stats according to Fangraphs.)
"He's hard to replace, but meanwhile, he gets us ready," second baseman Jonathan Schoop said of Hardy. "We've prepared for this moment. We prepared for if Manny goes down, J.J. goes down, I go down. Somebody's going to step up and make it happen. J.J. makes us so much better. You play around him, you're better. But Ryan, you can put him anywhere and he's going to play good. First, second, short, third. He's going to play good for you. That's how this team is. Somebody's going to step up."
The situation at third base seemed more settled entering the weekend than it does after it, but a pair of roommates at the University of Vanderbilt — Alvarez and Flaherty — figure prominently in that. By track record, they're two vastly different players with the former getting his first two starts at the position since August 2014 to try and get his left-handed power bat in the lineup, the latter more a defense-first player.
Flaherty has made nine starts at third base in the dozen games since Hardy went out and is 6-for-30 (.200) with a double and four walks in that stretch. With only 103 innings at third base this year, his UZR/150 is 77.9, a number so high that it's bound to regress. But it's indicative of the fact that he's been credited with three defensive runs saved, made 12 of 15 plays in his zone and 11 out of them. In a defense that heavily shifts like the Orioles do, Flaherty lines up all over the diamond and is comfortable everywhere.
In playing him at third base, the Orioles are giving up a little offense for the comfort in knowing an infield defense that was among the league's best with Hardy is not far from that level without him.
Alvarez has just 20 innings at third, and like he was over the course of his career in Pittsburgh, is rated poorly there by the metrics. That's why the Pirates moved him to first base in 2015.
Alvarez made a pair of strong plays going to his right and throwing batters out from the foul line Saturday, but several balls hit his way eluded him, dragging down his rating. Rolling with Alvarez at third base improves the team offensively, and defensively at other positions, even if his .205/.315/.346 line with two home runs is below his career rates. Playing him at third allows the Orioles to make slugging outfielder Mark Trumbo the designated hitter, with Nolan Reimold taking a corner outfield spot.
Showalter said after Alvarez's first start at the position that he would continue to be an option going forward.
"It's a good feeling going home tonight knowing that we have another option there," Showalter said. "We thought we did and he didn't do anything tonight to make us think any differently. It's good to know he's part of that depth."
Flaherty sees his increased playing time, and the possibilities opened up for the entire roster by Hardy's injury, as typical for a long season.
"You've just got to be ready," he said. "It takes all 25 guys throughout the course of a year. It's not just going to be the four or five big guys. They carry the team enough as it is. Everyone's going to get their turn to fill in and push the ship forward. Just keep plugging along and trying to win games."