Being a Mariners fan, I’m spoiled by the fact that I get to watch Brendan Ryan play defense almost every day. I’m anti-spoiled by the fact that I also have to watch Brendan Ryan play offense almost every day, but memories of watching Yuniesky Betancourt in the field are still fresh in my brain, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that there’s a better defensive shortstop than Ryan currently in the major leagues. I don’t even know what such a shortstop would look like; seems to me that, if there’s a fieldable ball in play, Ryan will turn it into an out or two, provided it’s somewhere within screaming distance of his starting position.
Ryan, absolutely, is one of the best. Some of the numbers suggest that he is indeed the very best. Even ignoring the numbers, his ability is readily evident to the casual observer. If there’s one guy who’s better, though, he plays in Atlanta. And he isn’t Tyler Pastornicky.
I don’t know if Andrelton Simmons is a better defensive shortstop than Ryan is, but I’m most open to that argument. Simmons is just a rookie, a 23-year-old with all of 39 games of big-league experience, but he came with a reputation and he’s most certainly backed it up when he’s had the chance. Simmons was billed this past spring as an unbelievable defender. Turns out he’s an unbelievable defender who can also hit a little bit, which is better than the hype.
And it’s interesting that Simmons has broken out in the same season in which Pastornicky blew an opportunity. I remember writing in spring about the Braves’ shortstop competition between Simmons and Pastornicky, and at that point Simmons was the underdog, justifiably. He held on later into camp than people thought that he would before the Braves ultimately went with Pastornicky to start. Pastornicky lost the job, in large part because he didn’t hit, and Simmons took over the job until he got injured, but this post doesn’t have anything to do with their respective bats. This is all about the opposite extremes of their defensive contributions.
Forewarning: this post uses advanced defensive metrics based on very small samples. I’m more inclined to trust infielder ratings than outfielder ratings, but I’m not trying to prove any specific numbers. The metrics are used to illustrate a simpler point: Simmons has been an awesome defender, and Pastornicky was a very unpleasant defender. You can either believe the argument or not, depending on how you feel about the metrics. I really don’t care what you believe. I am not that controlling. I don’t even know you!
Just based on raw, unprocessed UZR, there’s been a 20-run difference between Pastornicky and Simmons in the field. Based on DRS, there’s been a 20-run difference, plus another 11 runs. Those would be very large gaps over a full season of play. Combined, Pastornicky and Simmons haven’t even played 700 innings. Whenever you see extreme performances like this, you should automatically regress the numbers a little bit in your head. You can regress the crap out of these numbers and the differences are still significant.
As another exercise to try to support the same conclusion, why don’t we take a look at the Braves’ team BABIP allowed with Pastornicky and Simmons in the field? There’s noise in this data, but the Braves’ roster outside of shortstop has remained fairly consistent. We’ll also include something of a control group, which is the Braves’ team BABIP allowed with neither Pastornicky nor Simmons in the field. The remaining innings at short have gone to Paul Janish and Jack Wilson.
With Pastornicky: .305 BABIP (1,020 balls in play)
With Simmons: .271 BABIP (938 balls in play)
With Neither: .299 BABIP (1,821 balls in play)
Obviously, we can’t pin all of those differences on the shortstop position. What we can infer, however, is that the Braves’ defense has been the best with Simmons in it, and that probably isn’t a fluke. It’s been the worst with Pastornicky in it, and that also probably isn’t a fluke.
Here we include a .gif of the Andrelton Simmons Defensive Experience, and Tommy Hanson reacting to the Andrelton Simmons Defensive Experience.
Here we include a couple other Andrelton Simmons Defensive Experience highlights:
I don’t know if Andrelton Simmons is the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and I’ll forever be haunted by memories of Betancourt seeming amazing in the field when he first showed up. It didn’t take long for Simmons to get in the argument, though, and he may very well be better than Brendan Ryan and everyone else. The numbers think so, and while the data pool is limited, the eyes don’t need much convincing. When the numbers and the eyes disagree, it’s worth examining further. When the numbers and the eyes agree, they exchange an invisible high-five in the empty space between your head and your monitor.
It’s funny — even though Simmons has played just a quarter of a full season and Pastornicky played just a quarter of a full season, by WAR there’s a full three-win difference. A big chunk of that, expectedly, is defense; a big chunk of that, unexpectedly, is offense. Braves fans started the season with Pastornicky. That was what they got used to, that was their baseline. Then they were introduced to Simmons, and now it’s Simmons they’ll take into the playoffs. Braves fans probably couldn’t be a whole lot happier about things.