My Sunday afternoon was spent covering the Cleveland Indians and the Baltimore Orioles game at Progressive Field. In the fifth inning, something caught my eye from the press box:
Quite the double play turned by the #Orioles to kill a potential rally with two on in the fifth. Nice snag by Gausman, quick turn by Hardy.
— August Fagerstrom (@AugustF_ABJ) August 17, 2014
Double plays happen all the time. This one was a bit unique in that it was started by the pitcher, but it still appeared to be a pretty standard double play. Most exciting double plays are the result of a glove flip, a diving stop or a barehanded catch-and-throw. Here’s what this one looked like:
I don’t know if you see what I saw. But from where I was sitting, which was just a couple booths over from where that camera is, I thought there was no chance they were turning the double play when Gausman caught the ball. He made a nice stab, but was a little off balance and actually took a step backward before throwing to second. Jose Ramirez is a pretty quick runner out of the box and it was one of those things where I just assumed he would be safe until I saw he was called out. This is the J.J. Hardy effect.
I wanted to dig a little deeper.
Defensive Runs Saved, created by John Dewan over at The Fielding Bible, is one of the two advanced metrics we use to evaluate defense. One of the components of DRS for middle infielders is a Double Plays Runs Saved (rGDP) calculation. It considers both the angle and speed of the batted ball to determine the difficulty of every double play and credits each infielder accordingly for their role in every successful or failed turn. You can read the entire methodology here.
I dug a little deeper and this is what I found.
JJ Hardy leads all major league shortstops in Double Play Runs above average. That play showed why. Lightning fast hands on the turn. — August Fagerstrom (@AugustF_ABJ) August 17, 2014
I had no idea this was true about J.J. Hardy until I looked it up. I love when things like this back up the eye test.
As stated above, J.J. Hardy leads the MLB in rGDP this year at four runs above average. That’s not a huge number, because over the course of a season this isn’t going to be the difference between a team making the playoffs or missing the playoffs. But it’s there and it certainly matters. Hardy is at four and the next-best rated shortstop is Starlin Castro with three. Then you’ve got Alexei Ramirez, Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford at two. Everth Cabrera is last at negative four.
Last year, Hardy led the MLB at three. Simmons and Ramirez were right behind him at two. This is a repeatable skill and Hardy appears to be the best at it.
I’ve played baseball my entire life as a middle infielder. When I was younger I couldn’t hit at all so I had to be good with my glove. I took fielding lessons from a man by the name of Brett Lilley, who is the all-time NCAA Division I leader in hit by pitches, but that’s not important here. What is important is that he was an amazing middle infielder and my mind was blown when he taught me how complex turning a double play is. You need good footwork. You need to position your hands well. You need a strong arm. Then all of these things need to work together. Part of it is talent, part is technique. Hardy has both. Let’s take a closer look at that double play he turned against the Indians at a slower speed, thanks to modern marvels of technology:
This is just about perfection. I have Hardy’s “pop time” – the time from the ball hitting his glove to when it left his hand – at 0.67 seconds. I don’t have a league average or anything to compare this to, but that seems crazy fast.
His footwork is impeccable. He’s straddling the bag with his front foot towards first base and brushes his back foot over the bag for a “phantom tag” that is way less phantom than many you see. His shuffle is timed perfectly and sets his momentum up well for a strong throw to first. His hands are right where they should be. His throwing arm stays totally quiet the entire time, waiting patiently for it’s only job: receive the ball and throw. His glove hand stays low and tight to his body and he receives the ball with his glove hand moving towards his throwing hand for a quick transfer and throw. We make such a big deal over catcher receiving, but a middle infielder’s receiving ability on double plays is crucial, too.
But Hardy is only half of the double play team. In this case, his partner was Kevin Gausman, and Gausman did help him out with a spot-on throw. Usually Hardy’s partner is Jonathan Schoop. Schoop leads all second baseman in rGDP.
“From the first time I saw him turn a double play from second base, I thought he was extremely quick. He has good hands,” Hardy said. “After I feed him or Manny (Machado) feeds him, he turns the ball well with a strong arm. He’s been great.”
Here’s Hardy and Schoop in action from earlier this year:
Again, every good double play starts with a nice set-up throw from the original fielder. Hardy makes a great play and flip to Schoop, but Schoop does his part, too. He isn’t as quick as Hardy around the bag, but what he lacks in technique he makes up for in arm strength. Hardy said it above. The Orioles announcers say it all the time. As someone who just got done watching a ton of Orioles double plays up the middle, you’ll have to trust me when I say Schoop has an unusually strong arm for a second baseman. And you can see it in this throw. He plants off his back leg and still fires a laser to get a pretty quick runner in Nick Punto.
Now, I don’t know how much these things play off each other. I assume DRS does its best to attempt to isolate each part of the double play, but it’s easy to imagine that each player’s skills could potentially inflate the others rGDP rating. Either way, I don’t think the Orioles care. They’ve turned 128 double plays this year, three off the league leading White Sox and 58 more than the league trailing Rays. Given their high rGDP score, it’s safe to say the Orioles are better at turning the more difficult double plays, too.
J.J. Hardy is one of the slickest fielding shortstops in the major leagues and his work around the bag on double plays is a leading reason why. Jonathan Schoop isn’t bad around the bag either and has a cannon for an arm to go with it. Put the two together and you have the best double play tandem in the MLB residing in Baltimore.
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