In the face of a golden generation of slugging shortstops, the 27-year-old is a glove-first throwback
Yeah, that was pretty cool,” Andrelton Simmons said. “I liked that one.”
I’d just asked him about a play from April 8, when he’d leaped to corral a wayward throw from first baseman Jefry Marté, then twisted down to lay a last-second tag on a diving Jean Segura.
In addition to the incredible coordination and presence of mind it takes to make a play like that, this tag stands out for two reasons: First, nobody watching the play live thought Segura was out, except Simmons.
“I wasn’t sure he was out, but I knew I tagged him,” Simmons said. “I didn’t know if the umpire knew I tagged him. I felt like he was still moving. I’ve got to make sure they get a look at it. You know when it’s close, and you want to give it attention — you don’t want everybody to go, ‘Oh well, he was safe, I guess.’”
Second, it’s a creative tag that came in the midst of a collective national love affair with tagmaster Javy Báez; it’s like Simmons was reminding everyone who the OG was. Because somehow, we needed to be reminded who the best defensive infielder in baseball is.
Interviews with ballplayers have a certain rhythm to them — rote questions (“How do you feel about your performance so far this year?”) get rote answers (“Well, I’m just trying to get better every day”). Questions about how a player does something usually get detailed explanations. Most players, it turns out, like talking about the ins and outs of baseball.
But it’s different when you ask about Simmons.
Angels reliever Mike Morin took two full minutes to answer my first question about Simmons, rattling on like he physically couldn’t stop himself from talking. Astros catcher Brian McCann, who spent two years playing alongside Simmons in Atlanta, gave me the look my cat gives me when I say “dinner” and spoke through a besotted smile. Asking a ballplayer about Simmons is like asking a child about a favorite Christmas present.
“He was in high-A, and you heard about him,” McCann said. “‘Wait until you see this guy — he’d be the best shortstop in the game, and he’s in high-A.’ That’s what people were saying, and we were like, ‘What?’ Then we get to spring training the next year, and he’s in big league camp taking ground balls and we’re all literally in awe of what he was doing. You just knew he was going to be big time. You knew he was going to be one of the best shortstops in baseball.”
McCann’s favorite Simmons play came on August 17, 2013.
“He made a play, it may have been first and second in the [14th] inning,” McCann said. “There was one out, and the infield was in. We were up one, and he got a ball up the middle.”
The infield was in because Nationals reliever Craig Stammen was expected to bunt. When Stammen pulled back and chopped the ball up the middle, Simmons, instead of taking the easy out, tapped over to second and, like a handball player in a game of The Floor Is Made of Lava, hopped off the bag and floated it to first to end the inning.
Simmons is like if you put Ozzie Smith in Cal Ripken’s body, then put Simone Biles at the controls. He might have the best throwing arm ever on a major league shortstop. At Western Oklahoma State, where he played both ways for a coach named Kurt Russell, Simmons’s fastball sat at 95 miles an hour, and that arm has certainly translated to the infield.
Simmons owns the three best dWAR seasons by a shortstop since 2013 (his first full season), and three of the eight best since 2000. In 2012, he played only 49 games and still went for 2.4 dWAR, the 14th-best season of any length by a shortstop since 2012.
One side effect of living in a post-information-revolution society is that, for better or worse, we’re always looking for the next big thing. In 2012, Simmons captivated the baseball-watching public with acrobatic stops, double-play transfers that looked like something out of the Showtime Lakers, and spectacular throws. Five years later, Simmons is plugging along on an Angels team so anonymous it made the best baseball player who ever lived into a second-tier star, and J’s Postulate of the New Hotness looms large over the 27-year-old Curaçaoan. If Simmons isn’t old and busted, the new hotness is so abundant it certainly makes him look that way.
Another effect of living in a post-information-revolution society is that, perhaps because normal life changes so quickly, we’ve managed to treat some wild-ass shit like it’s a part of normal life. In the spirit of stepping back and reckoning with the surreal, here are the teams with a shortstop right now who’s 25 or younger and is either already an All-Star-quality player or has the potential to become one soon:
That doesn’t count Houston’s Alex Bregman and Baltimore’s Manny Machado, both of whom probably ought to be playing shortstop; Milwaukee’s Jonathan Villar, who moved to second base this season to make room for prospect Orlando Arcia; or 23-year-old Jorge Polanco of Minnesota, who could play his way into this discussion over the next year.
Six weeks ago, FanGraphs lead prospect writer Eric Longenhagen released his top-100 list, and placed Swanson and five more shortstops in the top 20, with a future grade of 60 (in other words, well above average) or better:
Calling this a golden age of shortstops might be underselling it a little.
The last golden age of shortstops, the crop that debuted in the mid-1990s, included two inner-circle Hall of Fame talents (Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez), one guy who had half of an inner-circle Hall of Fame career but was just about done at 29 (Nomar Garciaparra), and a Hall of Very Good guy who picked up an MVP along the way (Miguel Tejada). That’s a class of four perennial All-Star-quality players, unless you talk yourself into Edgar Rentería and Carlos Guillén, or stretch the generational bounds far enough to lump in Jimmy Rollins and Rafael Furcal. It’s a group with a great peak but very few members, unlike today, when more than half the teams in the league have their impact shortstop of the future, and the Astros and Rockies have two of them.
Every single one of those 25-and-under hot shots can outhit Simmons, but it’s the glove, not the bat, that earned him his seven-year, $58 million contract. By reputation, he’s one of the best defensive shortstops in the game — in four full seasons, Simmons has won two Gold Gloves and lost one each to Lindor and Brandon Crawford, both of whom are excellent defensive shortstops. But Simmons isn’t just “one of” the best defenders in the game, he’s the genuine article. He’s just been around so long now that we take him for granted.
With the exception of Correa, whom Simmons sees 19 times a year by virtue of being in the same division, the Angels shortstop says he doesn’t get to watch much of his younger competitors.
“He’s really good,” Simmons said of Lindor. “I hear quite a bit about him, saw him make a couple good plays. He’s an intelligent player; when we faced him last year we could see that.”
This season, Simmons is breaking in a new double-play partner, Danny Espinosa, himself a good defensive shortstop during his time in Washington. Espinosa says he’d always appreciated Simmons’s skill when the two were division rivals, and is enjoying playing alongside him in Anaheim.
“He’s a really loose player,” Espinosa said. “It’s fun, because we always communicate as the game goes, and for me, when I play the middle infield, that’s how I like to play as well. Playing with him just makes it easy.”
Espinosa’s favorite Simmons play came during a Braves-Mets game in 2015.
“He never took anything from me, but I saw him take a lot of hits from other guys,” Espinosa said. “I think in 2014 or 2015, [Travis] d’Arnaud hit a ball in the hole … and he threw him out at first base — that’s pretty impressive.”
My first couple years [in Los Angeles] we had Erick Aybar, who’s a tremendous defender as well,” said Morin. “Having Aybar there was the only thing I’d ever really known, and he was nothing but spectacular. And then Andrelton comes over, and I just remember watching him in spring training on a daily basis. You see him putting in the work before the game, and just how easy it is. How he fields a ball in a game is how he fields it in practice. It’s very nonchalant. Not in a bad way; it just comes so naturally to him. There’s nothing that’s forced.”
That ease of motion is one thing that separates Simmons from his competitors. No matter how fast he’s moving, he takes long, smooth steps, and when he really lets the ball fly, he’s not muscling it over to first the way Lindor has to. Instead, it’s like a whip.
“He always makes the runners conscious that he has the ball,” Morin said. “You’ll see a guy hit a single — let’s say it’s a ground ball to left field — and as [the outfielder’s] throwing it in, Andrelton will always get the ball and he’ll always look back to first, just to see if the guy’s not paying attention. And you’ll see him throw it, essentially from left field.”
Much as Morin loves Simmons’s propensity to back-pick runners, Simmons says he’s doing it less and less as he gets older. Though he says nothing’s changed for him physically since he entered the league, he’s started to take fewer risks.
“I think I was really aggressive when I was younger, like I was always trying to get the out regardless, and I’d make some costly mistakes,” Simmons said. “I also got a couple cheap outs, but it didn’t happen that often. You learn the risk and reward the hard way, and I think I’m a little more careful now whenever I try to make a play or force the issue and look for an out.”
Morin doesn’t have a particular favorite Simmons play so much as he has a favorite genre.
“The second a ball’s hit to left field he just puts his head down and sprints,” Morin said. “So seeing him make catches in that no-man’s-land between center and left, where not very many other people get to them, those are my favorites.”
One thing that separates a great defender from a great hitter or pitcher is the amount of time a defensive play takes to unfold. A hitter reads a pitch and hits it in the blink of an eye, while a defender has to track several moving targets — his teammates, the ball, the base runners — over several seconds. That’s particularly true for someone like Simmons, who plays in the middle of the diamond and routinely makes highlights on relay throws.
“You anticipate a situation,” Simmons said. “[You know] the speed of the runner, you know the situation in the game, so you know what out is prioritized. You anticipate before anything happens, and after it happens you try to see where everybody’s at out of the corner of your eye before you get the ball. And once you get it, you have to make a decision.”
Simmons says the Angels, like every team, rely on batted-ball data and shifting to a much greater extent than even five years ago when he entered the league. But when everyone’s got information, knowing what to do with it is the key.
“His instincts set him apart,” McCann said. “His instincts are off the charts. If you watch him he’s always looking to back-pick. He knows the little things in the game, and he’s always looking for an edge.”
Although Simmons is only 27, he already represents a throwback to a kind of player who doesn’t really exist anymore: the acrobatic glove-first shortstop. When hitters like Correa and Seager can play shortstop competently, players like Simmons and José Iglesias are in less demand. Last season, Iglesias was only the 19th-most-valuable shortstop in baseball, and Simmons, the best defender in the game at his position but a below-average hitter, trailed Seager and Correa by almost two wins.
Of the current shortstop wunderkinds, Lindor and Russell are the two best defenders, and both of them are still good hitters. Russell is a former high school running back who came up as a bat-first prospect, while Lindor (.465) has about the same career slugging percentage as Mark Trumbo (.469).
While Simmons has hit for power (17 home runs in 2013) and average (.281 in 2016), he’s never done both at the same time, and he’s never been much of an on-base guy. So when Lindor hits .301/.358/.435 and wins the Gold Glove, as he did last year, is there a place for even a next-level defensive shortstop who hits .275/.326/.358, as Simmons has done since 2015?
There is, as long as he keeps making plays like this.
Immons’s favorite play came during his first full season, and rather than a six-second epic of a throw from the hole, his involvement in this play was only momentary
“It was in Cincinnati,” Simmons said. “I forget who was pitching — I think it was a lefty — picked off [Shin-Soo] Choo at first. Freddie [Freeman] threw the ball a little off of where I was standing, and I had to reach and tag him between the legs.”
Yeah, that was pretty cool. I liked that one.
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