Different Process, Same Results for Andrelton Simmons

“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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Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

30 Responses to “Different Process, Same Results for Andrelton Simmons”

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  1. Dan Ugglas Forearm says:

    He certainly does swing out of his cleats a good bit still. He’s hitting 10% more ground balls, and 8% fewer fly balls, and his already-uninspiring LD% is down a bit as well. For someone who makes contact as often as he does, you always feel like at SOME point it will turn into good contact, but it just hasn’t happened. I don’t think he’s quite a true talent 15-20 homer guy, but if I were the Braves, I’d take my chances in finding out.
    After trying him out in the #2 spot in the lineup, almost all of his PA’s have come either 7th or 8th in the order, and maybe that has something to do with his approach. In 2013, the majority of his PA’s came from either the 1 or 2 spot, being moved to the bottom of the order late in the season. But it seems counter-intuitive for him to produce more power as a leadoff hitter than he has trying to clean up with Heyward and the good Upton on base.
    Also, he hit lefties and righties just about the same last season, and he’s got a pretty big gap, favoring hitting against lefties, this year.

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    • Nick in ATL says:

      Minor nit – since you mentioned an Upton on base, there was no need to clarify which one you were talking about. Also agree with your premise – don’t try to turn Simba into something he isn’t with the bat.

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  2. Crick says:

    So you’re saying Andrelton is a glove-first shortstop? Cool bro. Hadn’t noticed.

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    • Jason B says:

      So you’re a dick that didn’t read the article? Awesome broseph. We all noticed.

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      • Crick says:

        “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.

        -Must have missed this.

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      • george says:

        well at least we know he read the first paragraph!

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  3. Shuck Bowalter says:

    Maybe Andrelton Simmons can be a guy who has more success pulling the ball? I don’t understand the mentality that all defense first position players have to be spray hitters. Look what happened when Carlos Gomez stopped worrying about going the other way. Hit the ball to whatever field you hit it hardest.

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    • KK-Swizzle says:

      positional biases…they don’t make a lot of sense in terms of maximizing value, but its the way the game has been played for a long time, and some people just have a hard time thinking “out of the box.”

      The same principles act in other professions as well: the medical community removed kids’ tonsils for decades until someone dared to question whether it was actually helping anyone. The takeaway: keep the goal in mind, but don’t be afraid to adjust or abandon practices that flat-out don’t work!

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      • Descalzo Jose says:

        Thing is, those practices are usually based on something, before they got turned into one-size-fits-all unquestioned routines. (Getting my tonsils removed as a kid certainly helped me.)

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        • Tim says:

          Whereas I was stuck with oversized tonsils that hampered my breathing until I was 30 because of the backlash.

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  4. Eminor3rd says:

    Wait, isn’t 77 wRC+ substantially and obviously worse than 91 wRC+? It sounds like it should be “different process, worse results.”

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  5. JCCfromDC says:

    I wonder if the Braves would be better off just letting Simmons swing out of his shoes. For a couple of years Jim Riggleman and the Nationals tried to turn Ian Desmond into a use-the-whole-field, contact oriented guy. The problem was that Desmond was terrible at it – in his first three years he couldn’t get his OPS above .700, and he was only worth a total of 2.5 WAR.

    Then in Spring Training in 2012 Davey Johnson essentially told Desmond: “Eff that, you’re a power hitter. Swing hard.” The result? A heaping pile of strikeouts from an incredibly aggressive hitter. And 66 HRs, higher batting average and OBP, and 12.7 WAR with a month to go in 2014.

    Sometimes, the “right” (textbook) answer is not the right answer for an individual player.

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    • Josh says:

      I was going to say exactly the same thing. Desmond isn’t great with the glove like Simmons, but if the Braves decided they didn’t care so much about strikeouts then Simmons could probably knock out 20 HR a year, which is worth a lot more, in my opinion, than simply making contact. Also, Desmond the all-or-nothing is at 107 wRC+, 30 points higher than the Wizard of ATL. I think telling the kid to let ‘er rip is a good call at this point in his career. He can learn to hit when he’s 30. (Joking: he’ll pick things up in the majors, osmotically, anyway; a HR-hitting SS is a real asset these days and the Braves are probably shorting themselves by trying to change Simmons’ game.)

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  6. Descalzo Jose says:

    I don’t think we have much data on what a hitter looks like while he’s trying to change the kind of hitter he is — at least, I’m not familiar with any studies (and it would be difficult to compile, both because you don’t always know when it is happening, and because it often happens in the minors where the data is unavailable). It’s not unreasonable to expect things to get worse before they get better. (Assuming they get better, of course, or they give up and he goes back to being the hitter he was).

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  7. my jays are red says:

    I mean, isn’t this what we expected from Simmons? After a season of 91+ wRC we could have expected him to continue that process and now I suppose we know that his true talent lies in his ability to maintain line drives.

    That being said, I’m a bit disappointed with your article content. It’s a piece with a lot of words, all right, but it shows very little information other than “Simmons is a little worse with the bat this year.” There’s a reason InstaGraphs exists.

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  8. WAR am I? says:

    I don’t know why the Braves are wanting to change him, but watching him hit, this is the one that does it for me:

    “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.”

    I don’t care if he swings hard. (I’d change “overswinging” to just plain ole swinging in the above quote.) I just want him to swing at better pitches and realize he doesn’t have to swing at a pitch just because he can probably get a bat on it – and sometimes that is even true on pitches in the zone. He also could have a little bit better understanding of the situation (and I think this is part of the process he is working on). Runners on and a pitcher is struggling, don’t just swing at the first thing near the strike zone. Make the pitcher work a little, sitting on a pitch and letting anything else go. Notice he’s especially proficient at grounding into double plays for a guy of average speed. He GDPs like a catcher, or like his molasses-footed GDP partner in crime, Chris Johnson.

    Is it possible to be “too good” at making contact? I think Simmons is trying to prove it is.

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    • Josh says:

      Yes, it is possible to be too good at making contact and we already have some evidence for this: Juan Pierre. Made more outs than any other player over a 10-year stretch and did so almost wholly by making poor contact (ie, swinging at hittable pitches but not being able to do anything with them). You make a good point about AS swinging without being able to necessarily handle the pitch. I know it’s belaboring the point, but look at Desmond from the Nationals, another player who has a flawed offensive approach but who produces a bunch of runs regardless. Desmond swings at the first pitch, always. That’s his approach. But he’s also a great FB hitter and he banks on seeing a first ball, fastball in 75% of his PA. If he gets deeper into the count, then he’s looking for a hanging pitch to turn on. It’s crude and it leads to piles of Ks, but he also hits lots of liners to the gaps and 20+ HR. He bats 6th, too, so it isn’t like the Nats are dying at the top of the order with him. I think Simmons has every bit of Desmond’s ability at the plate, if the Braves just let him swing away.

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  9. Ricky R says:

    Boy oh boy if Cameron ever left Fangraphs I think readership would drop like a stone. Thankfully this site also contains awesome stat pages.

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  10. Phantom Stranger says:

    After last season I believed Simmons had the potential to be a .300 hitter and I still do. He clearly has the physical tools to do it, his reflexes are great and he swings with authority. He needs to alter his swing plane a little and get shorter to the ball. Simmons is never going to hit to right with much authority, he would have to re-engineer his entire swing. They’ve tried that with him this year, though the injuries have limited his approach.

    I’d probably try to shorten his stride length a bit and keep his head in a more static position as he swings. The Braves know he has pull power but Turner Field is too large for someone of Simmons’ size to base his entire hitting on pulling homers. He’d likely get away with it in a smaller park where balls fly out like Wrigley.

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  11. Johnston says:

    They should show him some videos of Christian Yelich batting.

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  12. fastatlast says:

    Simmons has great contact but terrible balance at the plate. He falls over almost every swing and drive the ball into the ground straight to the 3rd baseman. He’s a pretty infuriating hitter to watch on a regular basis, I wish he would hit the ball where it’s pitched. He could take a hint from Chris Johnson in this regard, because he has much better contact skills and much better pitch recognition than Chris.

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  13. Erubiel durazo says:

    I think the braves are convinced they can change him because he won a minor league batting title. What his approach was when that happened (how off balance can you be and hit .311 at Lynchburg?) is an interesting question.

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  14. Bronnt says:

    There’s certainly room for Simmons to improve over the hitter he was last year, when he had a 91 WRC+. His OBP was terrible, and it’s even worse this year. When you don’t strike out or walk much, you’re going to be heavily tied to BABIP, and the way to improve BABIP is to avoid getting a huge uppercut in your swing (Simmons’ problem last year) so you hit fewer popups.

    Plus, as Drew said, there’s doubt about the reality of the 17 homer season. Simmons had only hit a total of 9 home runs in the previous three years. He was, in fact, much more valuable as a hitter in minors when he had a high average and limited power than he was last season. Can he translate that to the big leagues? We’ll have to see.

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  15. Andrew says:

    Andrelton has put the first pitch in play in 92 ABs. He only has 22 hits (.239/.237/.272 triple slash). He was just as bad last year, but this seems to be a major problem. Look at elite hitters (or go reread your Scott Hatteberg chapter of Moneyball) and you’ll see that they don’t waste an at-bat by making many outs on first pitches. For further reference, the collective OPS for MLB this year on 0-0 counts is .870.

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