One of the major pieces of breaking baseball news in recent days was the Braves’ signing of shortstop Andrelton Simmons to a seven year, $58 million contract extension. This is big news partially because Simmons is arguably the first, youngest and least experienced player to earn such a deal primarily because of his defensive excellence. That excellence is supported by both the metrics and the scouting eye, and he is almost universally regarded as the single most valuable defensive player in the game. We’re not going to focus on his glove today, however. Simmons was far from a total zero with the bat last year, hitting 17 homers, not an insignificant sum at his end of the defensive spectrum. It will be Simmons’ development with the bat that will eventually determine whether the Braves get great value from this deal instead of an average to solid return. Today we’ll take a closer look at his offensive profile to get a better feel as to what the future holds.
Andrelton Simmons was a somewhat perplexing prospect in the 2010 draft. A native of Curacao, he was a two-way player at Western Oklahoma St. Junior College, a raw but athletic defensive specialist at shortstop as well as a fireballing righthanded pitcher who reached the upper 90’s with his fastball. Many teams thought he would never hit, and projected him as a pitcher. The Braves, among other clubs, saw it differently, and stepped up and popped Simmons in the 2nd round. Their role in developing Simmons, and helping to transform his raw tools into useable skills, has been impeccable to date, and they have been handsomely rewarded to date with his performance. His glove rocketed him through the minors to a NL Gold Glove Award in 2013, with his bat fighting to keep up, as he has been far from the automatic out at the major league level that many thought he would be. Let’s take a deeper look at the 2013 plate appearance outcome frequencies for Simmons and a couple of his youthful shortstop peers, to get a better feel for their respective offensive games.
For each player, the frequency of each plate appearance outcome is listed in raw percentage form, relative to MLB average (scaled to 100), and is also expressed as a percentile rank.
Elvis Andrus, 25, possesses the classic high-floor, low-ceiling offensive profile possessed by many long-haul shortstops over the years. A low K rate coupled with a low popup rate is the surest road to someday batting .300 in the major leagues. Derek Jeter represents the absolute offensive apex that can be reached by this type of shortstop, while later-career Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel are more emblematic of the type of production to which Andrus can aspire. Keep your head above water in the early years, and then perfect your offensive game as you physically mature and learn to even better manage at-bats. 2013 was in many ways a step backward for Andrus, as his popup percentile rank of 26, while still well better than average, was his first percentile ranking higher than 7 in his five-year career. Andrus’ line drive percentile rank of 30 was also by far a career worst.
Starlin Castro‘s frequency distribution suggests both a significantly higher floor and ceiling compared to Andrus. Like Andrus, Castro, 24, stepped backward offensively in 2013, with his K rate jumping from a previous high percentile rank of 31 to 56, and his always low BB rate dropping from a career “high” percentile rank of 16 in 2012 to 9 in 2013. While his 2013 line drive percentile rank of 58 was still above the MLB average, his previous career low percentile rank was 73. Castro is approaching a crossroads in his career – if he can spruce up his K and BB rates while solidifying his line drive percentile rank above 70, all while gaining physical strength, he can still become a star. If he continues down the slippery slope he was on in 2013, however, he could become an unplayable OBP sinkhole.
Before we delve into Simmons’ frequency profile, let’s put his 2013 offensive season into some sort of big-picture context. Since 1901, 2,334 regular player-seasons have been logged at the shortstop position. Those seasons result in an average slash line of .261-.321-.360, and an 87 OPS+. In 2013, Simmons slashed .248-.296-.396, with an 87 OPS+. I’d call that about exactly average performance for a shortstop in a historical context. Only 14 23-year-old shortstops since 1901 have hit more than 17 homers in a season, and it’s quite a list – Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Hanley Ramirez, Cal Ripken, Dale Sveum, Jhonny Peralta, Denis Menke, Vern Stephens, Jose Reyes, Arky Vaughan, Ernie Banks, some guy named Eric McNair, and Rico Petrocelli.
Only four of these players – Garciaparra, Peralta, Banks and McNair, were in their first full year as a regular shortstop at age 23, as was Simmons. Petrocelli’s line in 1966 – .238-.295-.383, with 18 HR and an 85 OPS+ – is eerily similar to Simmons’ 2013 performance, but he was notably the only player of the 14 with an OPS+ lower than Simmons. Of course, if Simmons were to go on to post Petrocelli’s career numbers – .251-.331-.420 with 210 HR, including 40 in a season, and a 108 career OPS+, the Braves would be overjoyed.
Simmons’ 2013 frequency profile is unusual in several respects. On the positive side, his K rate was one of the lowest in baseball, with a percentile rank of 3, confirming the exceptional hand-eye coordination that drives his defensive excellence. On the negative side is his extremely high popup rate (91 percentile rank) and extremely low line drive rate (8 percentile rank). While line drive rates fluctuate from year to year more so than the other batted ball types, it must be noted that Simmons’ line drive rate was almost as low in his two-month major league debut in 2012, so this may be in fact indicative of his true talent level.
Simmons’ walk rate was also low, with a 2013 percentile rank of 25, though that is not an unusual level for a first-year regular shortstop. This odd confluence of frequencies, unfortunately for Simmons, has only one peer among recent-vintage shortstops – Yuniesky Betancourt, who posted a .289-.310-.403 line with an 86 OPS+ in his first season as a then-flashy defender with exceptional hand-eye coordination at the shortstop position in 2006 at age 24.
Now that we’ve looked at the outcome frequencies, let’s look at the actual production these three generated on the various batted ball types in 2013, and then adjust that production for context:
|Andrus||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Castro||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Simmons||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
For each of the three major batted ball types, the 2013 actual AVG and SLG is listed. In the “REL PRD” column, the actual AVG and SLG is compared relative to MLB average, scaled to 100. In the “ADJ PRD” column, that relative figure is adjusted for ballpark, luck, etc.. The next to last row for each players includes the relative and adjusted production for all balls in play, and the K’s and BB’s are added back in the last row, which lists the same information for all plate appearances. All SH and SF are included as outs, and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation for purposes of this exercise.
Andrus does very little damage on fly balls (35 adjusted production), but this doesn’t hurt him much, as he hits so few of them. He generates less extra-base power from his line drives compared to the MLB average, largely due to his relative lack of physical strength at this stage of his career. His performance on ground balls was much better than the MLB average, largely due to the premium derived from his speed, and also because he sprays the ball around – an important factor, as we shall see later.
All in all, in 2013 Andrus seems to have reached his high offensive floor, as his relative solid K and BB rates push his very low adjusted relative production on balls in play of 70 up to a more respectable 81, not far below average for his position. I would not be surprised if Andrus never again has as bad an offensive season as 2013 in what will very likely be a long career. With an eight-year, $118 million contract extension that doesn’t even begin until 2015 in place, however, the potential for significant excess value over Andrus’ contract is somewhat limited given his lack of power potential.
Castro had more success on fly balls (adjusted relative production of 68) than Andrus in 2013, but was still well below average. Like Andrus, he gets below average power out of his line drives, as he is still gaining physical strength at this stage of his career. In fact, Castro’s frame, when compared to Andrus, would seem to be able to accommodate more bulk down the road, suggesting more power potential. Castro was flat unlucky on ground balls, with 73 relative production, while his hard/soft ground ball rates, as well as his solid speed, would suggest a better than MLB average 108 adjusted production figure.
Adjusted for context, Castro’s relative production of 92 on all balls in play is solid for his position – but his poor K and BB rates drop him down to 86. Basically, without his bad luck on grounders last season, Castro would have been just as productive as Simmons before adjustment for context. Castro is signed to a fairly comparable contract to Simmons, an 8-year, $60.6 million deal that runs through 2019. The value could go either way here, with the Cubs getting a massive bargain with offensive growth, or a potential albatross if .280ish OBP with inconsistent defense remains the norm.
Simmons was more productive than the other two on fly balls last season, with a relative production figure of 87, adjusted slightly downward for context to 84. His line drive authority was almost identical to that of Andrus and Castro, with an adjusted production figure of 94. Like Castro, Simmons performed poorly on ground balls last season, batting .186-.200, for a relative production mark of 61. His hard/soft ground ball rates suggest an upward adjustment to 96 – but not so fast.
Simmons is an “extreme ground ball puller”, and can easily and at low risk be overshifted by opposing infield defenses. Thus, I would expect his future actual production to be much closer to his 2013 actual rather than the adjusted level. On all balls in play Simmons (69 relative production) did less damage than Castro, and about the same as Andrus, if you don’t adjust Simmons ground ball production upward. Once the K’s and BB’s are added back, however, Simmons becomes the most productive of the three, thanks to his very low K rate.
About that “extreme ground ball pulling”…….let’s look at the pull tendencies of these three, using a very simple tool. For each of these righthanded hitters, the pull ratio for each batted ball type equals balls hit to (LF + LCF)/(RF + RCF):
|FLY PULL||LD PULL||GB PULL|
|RHB MLB AVG||1.18||1.63||3.32|
This is very interesting data to add to the discussion. When you hit the ball to all fields, defenses must play you relatively honest and avoid the overshifting that can drastically cut into batting averages. At this stage of Andrus and Castro’s respective careers, they rarely burn opposing outfielders by hitting the ball over their heads, but once they can, especially in Castro’s case, the ability to use the field will open up additional areas of opportunity all over the field.
Both players also have plenty of slack to selectively pull the ball in the air more for additional power, as many more experienced players do without pulling their liners and grounders at excessive rates. Simmons would already seem to be tapped out with regard to selective pulling. The numbers above clearly indicate that Simmons is looking to pull the ball almost all of the time. In fact, he had a higher overall pull percentage than Raul Ibanez in 2013, if you can believe that. This is yet another Betancourt-esque trait, and we all know where his offense has gone over the years.
Simmons’ bottom line is likely this – he very likely snuck up on a lot of MLB pitchers last season, pulling a lot of their mistakes over the left field fence. Now a “book” has begun to be compiled on Simmons, and he is going to be peppered with pitches on the outer third of the plate and beyond, with the occasional hard one out of the zone inside to keep him honest. His excellent hand-eye coordination will likely minimize the swings and misses, but weak contact will often ensue if he doesn’t learn to better manage the strike zone and increase his walk rate. As someone who watched Yuni and Jose Lopez make weak contact on pitchers’ pitches on a regular basis, take it from me, the offensive downside of an Andrelton Simmons who is either unwilling or unable to make the necessary adjustments is quite low.
Andrus and Simmons possess fairly narrow but normal platoon splits, while Castro’s is a much larger normal split, doubling down on the notion that Castro is the risk/reward guy of the three. All are very likely to be MLB regular shortstops for quite awhile, with Andrus likely to find a niche somewhere in the Luis Aparicio/Ozzie/Omar lineage offensively, and Castro having the potential to jump up to the Ian Desmond/Edgar Renteria level at best or lapse into late-career Garry Templeton mode at worst.
Andrelton Simmons, the offensive player, is a pretty tough call. I could easily pigeonhole him as a Yuniesky Betancourt in waiting with the bat, but his overall lack of reps as a hitter, his very high contact rate, plus the fact that he has been a very quick study to date in all facets of the game gives me pause. Extreme defenders such as Simmons became that good thanks both to natural gifts and extreme work ethic. Applying such a work ethic consistently over time – something Betancourt did not always do – will keep Simmons above the danger zone with the bat, and will not endanger the value of the Braves’ substantial investment in him.
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