Andrelton Simmons and Andruw Jones have a few things in common: they grew up in Curacao, they came up with the Atlanta Braves, they are superlative up-the-middle defenders with good power for their position but some other offensive flaws, and their names both start with “Andr.” I think that the final similarity between the two is this: they help demonstrate just how hard it is for many fans to intuit that one win on offense is equal to one win on defense.
For Simmons, this can be shown by his relative absence in conversations about the league MVP. This year, Simmons’s preternatural play at short has inspired any number of articles exploring whether he’s having the best defensive season ever. But even so, he hasn’t come in for much MVP consideration, which is a bit intuitively bizarre — if a player were having the best offensive season ever, there would be no question of MVP buzz.
(Simmons is only 14th in the league in WAR at 4.3, but that’s partly because UZR likes his defense less than DRS — he has 41 DRS and “only” 31.1 UZR. In any event, he leads the Braves in WAR, and the Braves lead the league in wins, so there’s no question that he has been “valuable.”)
Similarly, Andruw Jones’s career is dismissed by many baseball fans as falling below the standards for Hall of Fame induction. But many of those same fans would argue that Vladimir Guerrero, who retired this week, would merit induction. The comparison is instructive: they were Grade-A prospects in the minor leagues at the same time, they both came up in 1996, and while Guerrero had incredible offense and flawed defense with a strong arm, Jones had incredible defense and flawed offense with strong power. But Jones was substantially more valuable than Guerrero over the course of their respective careers, by 11.2 WAR.
During his career, Jones was often the subject of articles similar to the ones that have been written about Simmons this season, speculating about whether he was one of the best defensive center fielders of all time. That did not do much for his Hall of Fame case, even though I think he would have sailed in if he were one of the best offensive center fielders of all time. (Mike Piazza, the greatest offensive catcher of all time, has 4.2 fewer WAR than Jones.)
A run prevented on defense is equal to a run created on offense. This equation is fundamental to our understanding of WAR. But it isn’t intuitive. It’s like the old schoolyard question about which is heavier, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead.
On the other hand, great defense may have created unrealistic expectations for Jones, who had trouble satisfying Atlanta fans who couldn’t grasp why a guy who could field like Willie Mays couldn’t learn to hit like Willie Mays. It didn’t work that way for Atlanta’s other great Jones, Chipper who came up four years after the retirement of the greatest third baseman of all time. Chipper Jones hit nearly as well as Mike Schmidt, but couldn’t hold Schmidt’s jock in the field. Fans didn’t mind Chipper’s defensive deficiencies nearly as much as they minded Andruw’s offensive deficiencies.
In a way, Simmons has been lucky: the consensus greatest defensive shortstop ever isn’t Honus Wagner or Alex Rodriguez, it’s Ozzie Smith, so the offensive bar is comparatively lower. Ozzie took a lot more walks than Andrelton has, but Andrelton has greater power, and his 2013 batting line of .246/.295/.386 looks pretty vintage for a shortstop. (Andrelton’s .299 wOBA this year is six points lower than Ozzie’s career .305 wOBA.) If the 24-year old can improve his walks, he’ll have no problem hitting as well as Ozzie did.
If he does that, he will not just be the best defensive player in the league. He might be the best player, period.
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