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J.J. Hardy: Middle Infield Repairman?

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: March 12, 2010 - 12:22 AM

The Minnesota Twins have been cashing residual checks the past few seasons based on a sterling defensive reputation built in the early part of the decade. While the franchise continued to receive accolades, signs of cracks in the façade had started to appear. Nowhere is this more evident than in the middle of the infield. Upon review of the team’s 2009 fielding numbers, it was clear that the Twins were having as much troubles defending their midsection as director Kevin Smith did after being booted from a Southwest Airlines flight. 

 

Consider this: Out of the fourteen American League teams, the Twins middle infield finished dead last at keeping groundballs from becoming hits. 

 

Up-the-middle:

GB%

AVG on GB

Twins

21%

.443

AL Average

21%

.363

(All data provided by Inside Edge)

 

Because of the sheer volume of space, the positioning of the players and the constant shifting to covering second, the middle infield is perhaps the hardest region of the diamond to defend. Unlike the lines which are heavily fortified by the first and third basemen with backup in close proximity at second and short, the middle is about as unguarded as the Alaskan wilderness. This is why, on average, grounders escape through the middle at 36 percent clip versus just 20 percent if hit to the left or right. Though it would be easy to excuse the Twins gaudy number on the Metrodome’s turf, bear in mind that both Toronto and Tampa Bay - two other ballclubs that play on artificial surface - managed to produced slightly above average numbers in this category (.362 and .360 averages respectively). The difference came down to the personnel. 

 

Using John Dewan’s Plus/Minus system, we can readily identify the Twins defensive shortcomings in this department. As you can see below, from ‘07 to ‘09, the shortstop position went from an area of strength to an outright liability when balls were hit to their left: 

 

Plus/minus to shortstop’s left (toward 2nd base)

 

2007

2008

2009

Jason Bartlett

+4

x

x

Nick Punto

-1

0

-7

Adam Everett

x

+3

x

Brendan Harris

x

-12

-12

Orlando Cabrera

x

x

-11

(All Plus/Minus data from BillJamesOnline.net)

 

In the Hardball Times Annual 2010, Dewan listed the Twins’ mishmash of shortstops and second basemen as the worst unit in all of baseball. According to his plus/minus system, the Twins were -59 plays worse than an average shortstop/second base combination. This downward trend began after trading away defensive stalwart Jason Bartlett and since then the position can be summarized in a Jack Johnson lyric: “It’s bad, getting worse so where’d all the good people go?  

 

In 2008, veteran Adam Everett was brought in to ease the pain of losing Bartlett but injuries limited Everett to just 41 starts at short that year. Nick Punto was serviceable in Everett’s absence and was subsequently extended in ’09. Punto’s injuries and offensive woes pressed the Twins into acquiring perhaps the league’s worst defensive shortstop measured by plus/minus system, Orlando Cabrera. Cabrera, who had spent the first-half of the season weighing down the middle infield for Oakland, had anchored the second-worst unit in the AL at defending the middle (.395 average) - no thanks in part to his limited playmaking capabilities going towards the hole - prior to coming to Minnesota. 

 

With this deficiency in mind, the Twins approached the offseason hell-bent on rectifying this problem instead of a patchwork solution. They traded for the 27-year-old J.J. Hardy even before the Yankees stopped celebrating their 2,935th World Series championship. In acquiring Hardy, they not only received a shortstop with more pop potential than the previous tenants but also one with a solid defensive pedigree – at least in terms of converting plays up-the-middle while with the Brewers: 

 

Plus/minus to shortstop’s left (toward 2nd base)

 

2007

2008

2009

J.J. Hardy

+16

+18

+8

(All Plus/Minus data from BillJamesOnline.net)

Even if Hardy declines from his 2009 plus/minus numbers, as players are prone to do as they age, he still represents an infinite improvement over the existing aspirants. His acquisition, though shrouded somewhat in offensive uncertainty given his ‘09 results, gives the Twins a stable backbone in the middle of the infield unmatched since Bartlett’s departure.   

 

Why is his leather addition that important? 

 

It’s no small wonder that the team that has had the most success thwarting would-be hits last year did so by massively upgrading their shortstop position. The Texas Rangers shifted the aging incumbent Michael Young over to third base to make room for defensive prodigy Elvis Andrus, who accompanied the talented Ian Kinsler at second base, to reinforce the middle of the diamond in Arlington. Andrus’s +6 ranging to his left was a significant upgrade over Young’s -13 contribution in ’08. As such, the Rangers had a .307 batting average on groundballs up-the-middle which was substantially better than the league average and a considerable cost-savings from their .363 average allowed in 2008. 

 

If the Hardy can help the Twins replicate the Rangers’ middle infield formula of success from a year ago, the club stands a good chance of returning to the 90-win mark and making strides towards repairing a slightly damaged defensive reputation.

 

 


Elsewhere in the TwinsCentric universe:

  • Remember: The TwinsCentric Viewing Party starts tomorrow at 12:05 at Major’s in Apple Valley. Stop in for a chance to win Twins tickets, Major’s gift cards, TwinsCentric publications and other Twins memorabilia. Also, $2 pints, 2-for-1 appetizers, buckets of wings and the company of other Twins faithful await you.
  • Newbobber.com released their Top Minnesota Baseball Blogs and all of the TwinsCentric representatives fall within the Top Ten. I encourage you to peruse the list and checkout all of the 63 Twins blogs to appreciate the amount of content available for Twins fans on a daily basis.
  • Nick Nelson continues his tour of the Twins positional battles, reviewing second base.
  • Seth Stohs had a busy week posting numerous Q&As with various Twins prospects and had Aaron Gleeman (surprise, the number one stunner on Newbobber.com’s list) as a guest on last night episode of The Show.

 

 

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