“With his defense, he doesn’t need to do much at the plate” is a common refrain heard in regards to the best defensive players in the game. Elite players at premium positions get a lot of rope, so valuable is their glove work. Especially at key, up-the-middle positions, the offensive bar is set so low that any contribution from the game’s best defenders can be considered a bonus.
In 2013, Andrelton Simmons was among the most productive players in baseball, thanks to his beyond-superlative defense. To the surprise of many, Simmons also slugged 17 home runs, offsetting his struggles to get on base to produce a nearly-league average season. His 91 wRC+ surpassed the average shortstop last season, which is a recipe for a successful season. If you hit better than most of the peers while definitely fielding better than most of your peers, you’re doing something right.
As 2014 began, Simmons and the Braves were clearly not content with his production levels and vowed to change him, to bring his swing under control and make him a more complete hitter. In June, Braves hitting coach Greg Walker explained to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it was a matter of identity for Simmons, one he needed to adjust. “You’ve got to make a decision on what type hitter you want to be. Do you want to be low-average guy, a power guy, and deal with a lot of failure?”
That quote comes from June, and now here on the doorstop of September the question remains mostly unanswered – what kind of hitter does Simmons want to be? It is clear what kind of hitter the Braves want him to be. Going pull-crazy and swinging out of his shoes is not their view of success for their prized shortstop. In the above-linked piece, Walker makes mention of Simmons ability to use the whole field in 2014, praising his contact skills.
The process appears to be different but, for now, the results are all but the same. Comparing his numbers from 2013 to this campaign, the difference between Reckless Abandon Andrelton and Whole Field Andrelton is slight.
|2013||6.1 %||8.4 %||.149||.248||.296||.396||.303||91|
|2014||6.3 %||9.6 %||.099||.247||.294||.346||.282||77|
Never one to strikeout much, Atlanta’s shortstop was the last regular player to register a K this season, though he’s tracked right back to the mark he set last season. The only real, observable difference in his game is the 50 points of extra base power missing right off his ISO.
Clearly, the Atlanta Braves are more than comfortable in trading off that sort of power now in exchange for a more complete hitter in the future. And to Simmons’ credit, the type of outs he’s made this year might be more appealing in a team context. One big change is a drop in his infield pop up rate, from 17.8% last season to 11.5% in 2014. The easiest of easy outs can be even more maddening than strikeouts from some perspectives.
In addition to cutting his pop outs, Simmons has put himself into a higher percentage of hitters counts this season according to Baseball Reference – though he’s seeing fewer pitches per at bat. Whether it’s a matter of skill or randomness, he plated a much higher percentage of base runners from third base with less than two outs this year. As much as that looks like damning with faint praise, he deserves credit for doing the job asked of him by his coaches.
Short of logical contortions like this, it remains difficult to suggest anything other than Simmons is a worse hitter now than he was last year. His numbers are down and, given our measures or production, he’s less valuable than he was before. The Braves see Simmons as one kind of hitter and are trying to help him become that guy. Their measures of production are different, not to mention their vision for his long-term viability. Nagging injuries popped up this season, perhaps sapping him of both some strength in his swing and range at short. Cutting down his swing might shave off a few home runs but it could keep him on the field more down the road.
There is a nagging part of me that wonders if the Braves aren’t making a mistake. The “what kind of hitter do you want to be?” questions seem rhetorical, as it appears clear what kind of hitter he is – an aggressive swinger with the ability to hit the ball out of the park. Health issues aside, why is that not good enough?
In some ways, Simmons reminds me of J.J. Hardy. The Orioles shortstop isn’t as aggressive a swinger as the his Atlanta counterpart, but he makes the low walk, low strikeout, above-average pop thing work alongside his own defense-first brand of shortstop. While Hardy swings at far fewer pitches overall, they both boast contact rates well above league average.
Perhaps the Braves don’t believe his power spurt in 2013 is an accurate reflection of his skills, that left to his own devices his power would dry up. His minor league track record certainly backs this assertion. Perhaps they view him as a leadoff hitter, a guy who can draw out at bats and set the table for the real power hitters down the order. Or maybe they’re just tired of watching him get himself out, overswinging early in the count at pitches he can’t much of anything with.
Just a few days short of his 25th birthday and with five more years on his existing contract, there is plenty of time for the Braves and their shortstop to figure out just who he is at the plate. With his incredible hand-eye coordination and powerful swing, there are plenty of options for both team and player as they try to turn the best defender in baseball into a consistent threat on both sides of the ball.
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