How Good Is J.J. Hardy's Defense?

The biggest question mark in J.J. Hardy's game, oddly enough, isn't whether or not he can bounce back offensively.  It's whether or not his defensive reputation is deserved.

It's likely that Hardy's bat will rebound to some extent in 2010, and it's that upside that makes his pick-up as intriguing as it is.  But the constant, the "guaranteed" value, was in the premium defense he supposedly provides at a premium defensive position.  Hardy has been one of the league's best shortstops over the last few years.  If you believe the numbers.

FanGraphs has been running a series recently about the best and worst defenders in baseball over the last three years combined.  As Matthew Carruth states:  "Rankings are done by adding a player's UZR with his aggregate positional adjustment so as to level the playing field with regards to difficulty. Essentially, it's removing the grading curve".  Or, all things equalized, Carruth gives us the best and the worst.  Hardy finished third overall, as the highest-rated shortstop, and is calculated to have been worth 48.7 runs above average with the glove.

For the record, that is stellar.

But since the announcement of this deal on Friday we've started to hear strains of dissenting thought, largely from Brewers fans who have stopped by to deliver their first-hand impressions of Hardy in the field.

From Cheeseandcorn:

Also, he’s slower than you think he is. Way slower. Like, he will continually amaze you with his epic slowness.

This from backtocali:

The numbers used to measure defensive prowess cannot be accurately used when talking about JJ Hardy. He is a very solid shortstop, but do not be fooled, he is not elite. His range is downright awful. He has a solid glove and a very good arm, but if he is not in the exact perfect defensive position, he is worthless.

Another, this time from Ted Simmons Speed Camp:

Hardy IS extremely slow.  I never thought his range at SS was all that great, but he maximizes it with good positioning, a soft glove and a great arm.

Push all three of these comments together and we get a fairly comprehensive idea of what Brewers fans saw when they watched Hardy field his position:  good glove, good arm, bad range, slow.  Two up, two down.

I do find those statements interesting because I do place value on intelligent observations, which these were.  But when I evaluate a player in any capacity, I do have a tendency to lean towards what the numbers tell me.  Not because I don't believe my eyes, or anyone else's, but because numbers aren't subjective and make visual impressions quantifiable.  Ultimately, whether you believe what the defensive metrics tell you about any player or not, the numbers come from somewhere.  Which means there's probably a very legitimate reason why Hardy has been tabbed as one of the best shortstops, and best defensive players in general, over the last few years.

Let's skim past UZR/150 for a moment and go to the numbers that strictly talk about range, since that's the specific part of Hardy's defense in question.  Using numbers from THT, we'll include Hardy with some of the other great defensive shortstops in baseball (and Derek Jeter because, really, why not) to see if the observations of those Brewers fans match up with cold, hard, objective numbers.

Name Innings RZR OOZ INN:OZ
Cesar Izturis 2590 .852 122 21.2
Adam Everett 1841 .851 87 21.2
Jose Reyes 3156 .849 110 23.9
Elvis Andrus 1238 .846 45 27.5
Yunel Escobar 2676 .841 124 21.6
Alex Gonzalez 1820 .839 63 28.9
Ryan Theriot 3436 .834 111 31.0
Brendan Ryan 1248 .833 77 16.2
Nick Punto 1231 .831 47 26.2
J.J. Hardy 3488 .826 166 21.0
Jack Wilson 2754 .826 163 16.8
Derek Jeter 3836 .819 89 43.1
Jimmy Rollins 3973 .818 166 23.9
Rafael Furcal 2788 .817 130 21.5
Jason Bartlett 3444 .798 175 19.7


INN = Innings played at shortstop 2007 - 2009
RZR = Percentage of balls-in-zone that were converted into outs; average is about .790 - .810
OOZ = Plays made outside of a shortstop's defensive zone
INN:OZ = An average of how often a play is made outside of the shortstop's zone

A full time shortstop plays somewhere between 1250 and 1400 innings at his position per season; Ryan was a rookie in 2009 but has the same number of innings as Punto, whose totals represent three years combined.

According to the above breakdown, which is about as objective as defensive range metrics can get, Hardy's range is fine.  In fact it's better than that, it's above average...consistently.  You could chalk that up to (like the above commenters mentioned) great positioning, but a guy who makes plays on positioning alone isn't going to make 166 plays outside of his defensive zone, either.  Jeter is the model of this theory--he's the guy who's reliable for making plays on most of the balls he touches, but he does it by playing deep.  It robs him of the ability to make plays on balls he shouldn't be making plays on, unless he's chasing it into the shallow outfield.

Bartlett, on the other hand, is the guy on the other side of the curve.  His superior range allows him to make plays like few other shortstops in baseball, but he's prone to mistakes more often than some of the other guys on this list.  Certainly some of it can be chalked up to bad positioning, but we know there's a little more to it than that.

Looking at older range metrics, like RF/G or RF/9, Hardy comes in around the middle of the pack.  Indeed, scrolling through a list of defensive metrics, the worst you will see Hardy ever being is middle of the pack.

Conclusions

So, where does this leave us?  We can't ignore the defensive metrics, because all players are graded equally.  By the same token we can't just dismiss first-hand accounts...especially since, like most of you, I really haven't had the opportunity to see Hardy play on a day-to-day basis.

The obvious and most probable outcome is that both groups are right.  Hardy's speed likely inhibits his range in the field, which is partially made up for by great positioning and an ability to consistently and reliably make outs in situations where he's expected to make them.  Is his positioning so great that it allows him to challenge for the most plays made outside his zone every year?  Probably not, which implies that it's more than just positioning that allows him to excel and get to that sick number of balls he has no business getting to.

I expect that when we finally get to see Hardy play everyday next summer, we will be a little surprised at how he moves.  But that's where the numbers come in.  He's obviously making a ton of plays, more than a vast majority of shortstops in baseball, and he's earned his reputation (on paper and on grass) as one of the best defensive infielders in the game today.

Any questions we might have will (obviously) get answers once we actually watch him play.  Until then I'm content knowing that we did get a very good defensive shortstop in return for Carlos Gomez.

Ultimately it doesn't matter how you get the out as long as you get it.  It's just like picking up the win--just get it.  And that's something J.J. Hardy is apparently very, very good at.  Both sides agree on that.

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