The Most Unlikely All Star of All

With the season on hiatus for the playing of the Midsummer Classic, we might recall some of the best players never to play on all All Star team. My personal nominations for such an award, if it were to exist, would be for Garry Maddox, one of the best center fielders I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch, and Tim Salmon, a consistent, prolific middle-of-the-order power threat. Toss in Kirk Gibson for good measure. Articles are also written about the worst players ever to play in All Star Game, but this is not one of them. This is about an unlikely participant – the Reds’ Alfredo Simon, who was yesterday named as a late addition to the NL roster. Anyone who had him in the “Future All Star” pool at any time in the last decade and a half, please step to the head of the line.

Before there was Alfredo Simon, there was Carlos Cabrera. Cabrera was signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1999, supposedly at the age of 16. He battled his way through the short-season levels of the Phillies’ system through 2002, showcasing a large, durable frame and a mid-to-upper 90’s fastball. I had the opportunity to scout him at Low-A Lakewood in 2003, his first year in a full-season league. I assumed he was 20 years at the time, and turned in a favorable report after watching him pitch. Within months, however, word had leaked out that Cabrera was actually named Alfredo Simon, and was 21 months older than his listed age. This affected my view of his upside, but he still looked like a future major leaguer to me, more specifically a reliever with end of the game potential. No, I did not envision a future All Star starter who pitched to contact with a very low walk rate.

Simon didn’t last long with the Phillies after his age adjustment, being dispatched to the Giants along with Ricky Ledee for reliever Felix Rodriguez. He quickly set about earning minor league journeyman status upon arrival in the Giants’ organization, never posting an ERA under 5.00 in any of his minor league stops in his season and a half there. He then became a minor league free agent (multiple times), a Rule 5 pick and even pitched in the Mexican League for a spell, bouncing from organization to organization before settling in for awhile with the Orioles in 2009.

Just when it appeared Simon was ready to make the major league club out of spring training, he suffered a UCL injury and required Tommy John surgery. He recovered and rehabbed relatively quickly, and unlike many hurlers who require a period of readjustment to regain their command, established dominance at the Triple-A level and was summoned to the big leagues in early 2010. Except for four starts in 2011, in an initial attempted conversion to a starting role, he hasn’t been back since.

Truth be told, the Alfredo Simon who largely struggled in the major leagues with the Orioles over parts of four seasons wasn’t much different from the Carlos Cabrera I saw back in Lakewood. He had filled out noticeably, to 6’6″, 265, and still tantalized with raw velocity, but didn’t command his fastball particularly well, and his secondary pitches were inconsistent. In the leadup to Opening Day 2012, however, Simon got the break of his professional life, as he was claimed off of waivers by the Reds, and was turned over to their then pitching coach and current manager, Bryan Price.

Simon was used exclusively out of the pen in his first two seasons in Cincinnati, but was a totally different cat than he had been at any previous point in his professional career. He repeated his delivery much more consistently, threw a lot more strikes – including a higher percentage of quality strikes – and began his evolution into a ground ball pitcher. He began to use his cutter much more often at the expense of his slider, and has much more deadly to same-handed hitters in the process. Price became the Reds’ manager this season, and decided to once again attempt to turn this huge, durable guy with the newly repeatable delivery into a starter. And here we are – Simon is tied for the major league lead in wins, with 12, and has become the latest in a long line of against all odds All Stars.

Let’s take a step back now and attempt to get to the nub of Simon’s true talent. Is he what his traditional numbers suggest – a Cy Young candidate and a potentially historic late-career breakthrough starting pitcher? Is he a historic fluke – someone with gaudy traditional numbers who is benefiting from playing in front of a very strong defense? Or is he something in between? His ERA – 2.70. His FIP – 4.34. What exactly do we have in Alfredo Simon? Let’s take a closer look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to get a better feel for him. First, the frequency data:

FREQ – 2014
Simon % REL PCT
K 16.0% 79 3
BB 6.0% 77 32
POP 6.9% 90 50
FLY 25.4% 91 34
LD 20.8% 100 34
GB 46.8% 107 72

The standout piece of information in the table above is Simon’s very low K rate. Using full-season 2013 data, his 16.0% K rate is good for a 3 percentile rank. Striking out so few hitters puts inordinate pressure on a pitcher to manage contact on balls in play. His control is solid, a 6.0% BB rate good for a respectably low 32 percentile rank. His batted ball profile isn’t particularly notable in any meaningful way – he has somewhat of a ground ball tendency, with a 72 percentile rank, but doesn’t rank among the elite ground ball inducers in the game. This is the frequency profile of a pitch-to-contact, league-averageish type pitcher who lacks a single go-to skill or ability that would qualify him for an All Star Game. Simon’s production by BIP type allowed information for 2014, both before and after adjustment for context, should offer more insight into his performance to date:

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.274 0.810 112 119
LD 0.580 0.768 77 99
GB 0.155 0.161 40 98
ALL BIP 0.264 0.433 71 98
ALL PA 0.218 0.266 0.357 76 101 2.70 2.90 3.86

The actual production allowed by Simon on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, his actual ERA, his calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and his “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

Simon does not allow a ton of fly balls, as shown in the first table, but the ones he does allow are hit quite hard – his fly ball REL PRD of 112 is adjusted upward for context to 119. The most stark information on the production table occurs on the next two line items – Simon has allowed well below MLB average production on line drives (77 ADJ PRD) and ground balls (40 ADJ PRD – which would have been by far the lowest among 2013 MLB ERA qualifiers). Simon, however, does not allow materially less authoritative line drive and ground ball contact – after adjustment for context, he should be allowing basically MLB average production on those types of batted balls. Simon has been significantly aided both by luck and well above average team defense – particularly in the infield. Without adjustment for context, Simon’s overall REL PRD – his unadjusted contact score – of 71 is a candidate to the lead the NL in 2014. His true contact management talent is better measured by his ADJ PRD, which gives him an adjusted contact score of 98, basically league average. Add back his K’s and BB’s, and his overall ADJ PRD creeps up a bit higher to 101, giving him a “tru” ERA of 3.86, just above MLB average, over a full run above his actual ERA.

I am not here to diminish the accomplishments of Alfredo Simon or the Cincinnati Reds. The club deserves a ton of credit for seeing a starter in Simon, and he deserves a ton of credit for turning himself into somewhat of a control artist, who pitches to his strengths. His decent swing-and-miss rate of 8.9% even suggests there may be more K’s in there somewhere. In the big picture, Simon is a letter-perfect fit for his club – a strikethrower who gets more than his share of ground balls, pitching in front of what may be the best infield defense in the game. What he is not, however, is a true-talent sub-3.00 ERA pitcher. This exact moment in time is very likely the pinnacle of Alfredo Simon’s major league career.

I searched one of my many databases for 33-year-old first-time ERA qualifiers, and came up with a whopping seven names – Ewald Pyle (1944), Mel Queen, Sr. (1951), Milt Shoffner (1939), Eric Stults (2013), Tom Timmermann (1973), Jim Turner (1937) and Ryan Vogelsong (2011). Suffice it to say, this group did not go on to record a prodigious amount of major league success. In fact, the seven of them combined for a grand total of four additional ERA-qualifying seasons after their age-33 year, three of them posted by Turner – who had previously logged 12 minor league seasons – and the other by Vogelsong. Stults and Vogelsong could add to that total this season, but even if they do, this group of peers doesn’t exactly suggest extended success as a starting pitcher for Simon.

Even if this is his peak, however, Simon is still of substantial value to the Reds. They initially needed him to be no more than a 4th or 5th starter, and with the first half injury to Mat Latos and the extended early-season ineffectiveness of Homer Bailey, Simon stepped up and was much, much more than that. A lot has gone wrong for the Cincinnati Reds in the first half, but there they are, lurking just behind the front-running Brewers and Cardinals, thanks in large part to the efforts of Alfredo Simon. Cheers to the elder statesman of the Reds’ rotation as he enjoys a hard-earned moment in the sun, a highlight of the dream season of his unlikely career on Tuesday night in Minneapolis.

Print This Post