Let’s talk about slumps. Mike Trout is drawing some attention for his elevated strikeouts, and he’s on pace for 21 fewer batting runs than he produced a year ago. Prince Fielder’s had some trouble adjusting to his move, and he’s on pace for 29 fewer batting runs than he produced a year ago. Robinson Cano up and changed sides of the continent, and he’s on pace for 34 fewer batting runs than he produced a year ago. These are all pretty big statistical declines, and while the players are each too good to give up on after so little time, their numbers are getting noticed. People are impatiently waiting for the players to look like themselves. I should note that Trout’s still been amazing, on account of being Mike Trout, but one can be simultaneously amazing and worse.
You know what nine or ten runs mean. You know the rule of thumb is that’s about what a win is. A win’s a pretty big deal, so those declines above are pretty big deals. And, of course, offense isn’t the only area where numbers fluctuate. Defensive Runs Saved, as shown on FanGraphs, updates daily. A year ago, as a shortstop, Andrelton Simmons was worth 41 runs above average in the field. This year he’s on pace for +4. He’s a full-time player on pace to be worse by 37 runs, and that’s an enormous gap that to my knowledge no one’s discussed.
Certainly, there’s no reason to believe Simmons’ level of talent has meaningfully changed. Oh, he’ll be a mediocre shortstop in time, when he’s 50, but right now he’s 24, and last year he was 23. We’ve known Simmons as the guy who’s broken the advanced defensive metrics, and talent doesn’t disappear overnight. We’ve always cautioned that you need big samples of defensive data to draw conclusions, and a month and a half isn’t enough. Based on 2014 numbers, there isn’t much we can conclude about Simmons’ defensive true talent.
But there’s true talent, and there’s performance. Over long stretches of time, the two are close together, but while true talent changes slowly and predictably, performance can dart around like a fly in a kitchen. One could say that Simmons, to this point, has earned his numbers for the year, even if they don’t quite reflect what he really is. Why should we expect a perfect reflection?
I got to wondering about what Simmons has done. And that took me to his defensive spray charts, and that took me to MLB.tv. The numbers say Simmons has been creating fewer outs in the field. What does that look like? Join me, if you will, on a tour. We’ll cover just the past week, because it’s been an eventful one. Here are six plays that Andrelton Simmons didn’t make.
Play No. 1
Inside Edge actually lists this as an impossible play. That is, they figured 0% of shortstops would turn this into an out, and the Braves announcers said that Simmons didn’t have a chance. What Simmons did do was get close enough to look like he did have a chance, and in the past he’s certainly shown the ability to slide in front of a ball and launch it accurately to first with his shoulder-mounted cannon. In truth, this probably was impossible, but if you close your eyes and imagine, you can see Simmons coming up with magic.
Play No. 2
Almost impossible, according to Inside Edge, but not quite literally impossible. The part you see is that Simmons was unable to barehand the ball cleanly, but even if he had pulled that off, it’s by no means a lock he would’ve been able to throw out Darwin Barney. Barney’s a decent runner, the chopper was slow, and Simmons would’ve had to throw the ball off balance. 1-10% seems about right, erring closer to 1%.
Play No. 3
Darwin Barney again. Super difficult play again. The play Simmons didn’t make, pretty much all shortstops also wouldn’t have made. But the thing about Simmons is he isn’t supposed to be just another adequate shortstop. He’s supposed to make the regular plays, and the extraordinary plays. One gets only so many opportunities to make an extraordinary play.
Play No. 4
Screaming line drive. Nearly caught on the fly, but the ball came out of Simmons’ glove. This was classified as a remote play, but that doesn’t mean Simmons wasn’t upset with himself afterward:
Hold yourself to a crazy standard and you’ll be disappointed a lot by things that wouldn’t disappoint other people. This is the third play, incidentally, we’ve seen from the same game. Prepare for a fourth. Could this have been an out? Sure. Almost was. Simmons almost pulled off a Simmons, but instead he pulled off a Normal.
Play No. 5
Here’s the real stinker of the bunch. While it’s never easy to backhand, and while the ball might’ve taken a funny bounce, a ball got through that usually doesn’t, and Simmons was initially charged with an error before the play was apparently changed to a hit. Inside Edge classified this play as basically a coin flip. Definitely not easy, but, again, this isn’t a post about Derek Jeter.
Play No. 6
Simmons came up just shy of stopping this hot-shot grounder from Hunter Pence. Because he didn’t, Pence finished the play on second base, with the rare two-out double that doesn’t score a runner from first. If made, this play would’ve gone on a highlight reel, but instead that’s one fewer highlight for Andrelton Simmons, not that he doesn’t already have enough.
What’s been learned? First of all, I’ll note that none of these runners actually ended up scoring. Everybody got stranded, so Simmons didn’t meaningfully cost his team much of anything. And all but one of these plays would’ve been incredibly difficult, so we can’t even classify this as a defensive slump, really. And this brings us to the expression, that defense never slumps. When people say that, they’re thinking about the routine plays, the high-percentage plays. That defense doesn’t slump, barring a case of the yips. But there’s easy defense and challenging defense, and while the challenging defense is more infrequent, it’s also volatile, because the percentages shift so drastically. The idea behind the expression is that defensive performance is stable. But it likely isn’t toward the extremes, because the extremes involve full-out dives and barehands and throws while falling away. It takes little time for routine defensive ability to stabilize. It takes a lot more time for extreme defensive ability to stabilize.
For Simmons to do what he’s done in the past, statistically, he’s had to be amazing at both the routine and the exceptional. Probably, based on the numbers, he was a little over his head in the exceptional department, and in a sense that’s what regression is. His numbers are down now because he’s made fewer of the insane plays, but the reality of Andrelton Simmons might lie in between, where maybe in the future he makes one or two of the plays above. We know he can do things most shortstops can’t. Andrelton Simmons has the same defensive talent as ever. All the numbers are are estimations, and it can be a challenge to estimate the rare.
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