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J.J. Hardy and range

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: October 15, 2010 - 3:11 PM

After the Twins’ season abruptly ended in New York City last week, columnist Jim Souhan offered his account of what it would take to improve the team heading into 2011. Souhan presented six things the team needs to do in order to retool.

In Souhan’s assessment the columnist took aim at the two middle infielders brought in before the season. According to the scribe, “[w]hile Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy were comforting because of their sure hands and experience, by the end of the year neither had produced much offensively or shown range in the field.”
Leaving the Hudson conversation for another day, let’s examine this statement regarding J.J. Hardy further, specifically the issue of his range.
This is a big question in terms of what exactly range is. If it is measured in foot speed, Hardy clearly is inadequate as he rounds the bases with as much velocity as a booze cruise on Lake Minnetonka. Drawing a conclusion on Hardy’s range based on that fact would probably be accurate in most cases. That said, using more advanced defensive metrics however, we find that Hardy is one of the baseball’s best at getting to plays that are typically out of a shortstop’s normal zone:

Shortstop’s out-of-zone plays (2008-2010)
 
Defensive Innings
Out-of-zone plays
Yunel Escobar
3,439
184
Cesar Izturis
3,186
153
Stephen Drew
3,695
153
Jason Bartlett
3,354
153
Hanley Ramirez
3,778
139
J.J. Hardy
3,076
136
(via Fangraphs.com)

Despite his shortcomings in quickness, Hardy has demonstrated an outstanding amount of coverage in the infield, even when splitting time in the minors (while in Milwaukee) and on the DL. Plus, with the exception of Izturis and Bartlett, Hardy has spent far fewer defensive innings on the field and has managed to get to approximately the same amount of plays. Based on this data, Hardy is actually one of the rangiest shortstops in the game today.
How is it then, if someone like Hardy that moves at the pace of a dial-up modem, can reach so many plays that a normal shortstop cannot?
One answer is that Hardy, blessed with a strong arm, likes to play a deeper short than his quicker counterparts. The ability to play a few steps back provides Hardy the capacity to guard more territory than he would if he set up in prototypical shortstop alignment, such as being able to field up the middle extremely well. Therefore, Hardy can cover more ground and close the speed chasm between himself and someone like Jason Bartlett, for example.
Another factor into what makes for a shortstop with average speed quicker is simply positioning. In George Will’s 1990 classic “Men at Work, Will looked at different aspects of the game (hitting, pitching, managing, fielding, etc), talking to their premier players at the time whose qualities best encompass those areas. For fielding, Will tapped Baltimore Orioles’ shortstop Cal Ripken, another middle infielder built in Hardy’s stature (Ripken has two inches on the Twin) with average speed. Ripken’s insight may help lend anecdotal evidence to what makes Hardy such a rangy player:
“’I like to learn their hitters and our pitchers and cheat a little bit, and cut down the area I have to cover,’ Ripken says. “I’m not blessed with the kind of range a lot of shortstops have. The way I have success is, I guess, by thinking.’”
The simple knowledge of knowing what your pitcher is throwing, in what count, to what batter, under what circumstances and where to position yourself to maximize the probability of getting to a batted ball can undoubtedly make up for a step deficiency. Perhaps Hardy shares a similar foresight to opponents and the defensive game that Ripken had.
Observationally, we may be correct in assuming his speed should be a hindrance but his positioning, like that of Ripken’s, may compensate that shortfall. Until something like Field F/X  is released to the general public, we may never fully understand why a player like Hardy’s foot speed is able to get to more batted balls than his quicker counterparts. Either way, the Twins are fortunate enough to have the rights to retain what current data reflects is one of the league’s best defensive shortstops.

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