While Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz and even Steve Pearce have deservedly been credited with leading the Orioles' march to the top of the American League East, it's important to recognize the role that J.J. Hardy has played this season.
If you glance quickly at the power numbers, Hardy's season may appear to be a disappointment. The Orioles shortstop has hit four home runs this year and is on pace to finish 2014 with seven. Hardy has averaged 25 homers a season since joining the O's in 2011, and belted 30 in his first year with Baltimore.
What Hardy has lacked in power, he's made up for in batting average. Over the previous three seasons, he's slashed .256/.298/.434. This year that line has climbed to .281/.313/.375. What I find fascinating about Hardy's power decline is that his batted-ball percentages are close to his career totals.
* Line drive percentage - Career: 16.9 percent; 2014: 18.4 percent
* Groundball percentage - Career: 44.3 percent; 2014: 38.9 percent
* Flyball percentage - Career: 38.8 percent; 2014: 38.9 percent
While Hardy is striking out slightly more (16.2 percent) and taking fewer walks (4.1 percent) this season, the noticeable difference is his homer/flyball percentage.
* 2014: 3.6 percent
* 2013: 12.4 percent
* 2012: 10 percent
* 2011: 15.7 percent
* Career: 10.9 percent
His 2014 total is a career-low - in fact it's almost half his previous low recorded in 2010.
What's causing the ball to stay in the ballpark? Is he simply not making solid contact on those swings? Could he be playing with some sort of lingering injury? Maybe it's just a season of bad luck on uppercut swings. A quick glance at his spray chart reveals that Hardy hasn't had as much success pulling the ball to left field this season as he did in 2013. Though, admittedly, his power struggles are likely a combination of all of the above questions.
What I do know for sure is that Hardy's season is certainly under-appreciated. According to FanGraphs, Hardy has been the third-most valuable player on the Orioles roster, tied with Nelson Cruz at 2.2 WAR. In a lineup full of free swingers, Hardy has proven to have one of the best eyes on the roster. He has swung at just 30 percent of the pitches he has seen outside of the strike zone, ranking behind only Nick Markakis in that category. On pitches inside the zone, Hardy has made contact with 92.4 percent of the pitches he has swung at, ranking second among Orioles starters.
Defensively, he leads the Orioles in UZR (9.6, which also ranks second among all shortstops). Hardy's heroics in the field have led to six defensive runs saved. These numbers are nothing new for Hardy. In last year's All-Star season, he turned more double plays than any shortstop in the game (102) and won his second consecutive Gold Glove award.
Hardy's impressive play in the field is sometimes overshadowed by the 22-year-old playing to his right. Paired with Manny Machado on the left side the O's infield, the shortstop and third base duo have saved 80 runs since 2012.
Though Hardy is having a different season than we've seen from him in previous years in Baltimore, it doesn't make it any less valuable. In fact, you could argue that the balance he has brought to the lineup this season mixed with his consistent defensive play is even more important.
Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zamwi. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.