After four years in the Major Leagues, one thing is crystal clear: Andrelton Simmons is a hell of a fielder. He is the best defensive shortstop in the game. I won’t try and determine exactly how many runs Simmons’ glove saved. No matter what formula you use, the answer is a lot. Cue the age old debate over whether or not that makes him extremely valuable to his team (answer, yes it does). The defensive metrics will tell you that Simmons saved his team somewhere around 25 runs this season when compared to the average shortstop. Offensively, however, Simmons and his .660 OPS were worth -10 runs compared to the average hitter.
In four years, Simmons has made little to no progress as a hitter. After hitting 17 home runs in 2013 and getting some MVP votes, Simmons has hit seven and four home runs in the two years that followed. His OPS+ has never topped the benchmark value of 100 for a full season. Reaching base has been quite a challenge, although Simmons did crack the .300 OBP Mendoza line for the first time this year.
The first four years of Simmons’ career are not dissimilar to the first four years of Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith‘s career. Both shortstops have a .666 career OPS. Simmons, of course, will have plenty of chances to improve on that value, although he has not done better than it over each of the past two years. Smith won 13 Gold Gloves, made 12 All-Star teams, and wrapped up his 19-year career with 2,460 hits and 580 stolen bases.
The Atlanta Braves were obviously very enamored with Simmons’ defense when they signed him to a seven-year, $58 million deal that kicked in before the 2014 season. That contract began looking more and more like an albatross when it became evident that Simmons was not very likely to build upon his 17-homer season in 2013. Not in Atlanta, anyway. With no offensive progress evident on the horizon, the $39 million Simmons will be owed over the final three years of the deal became very easy to trade away for a rebuilding team. That’s the beauty of a backloaded contract for a young star. Simmons is right up there with big names like Troy Tulowitzki and Brandon Crawford when it comes to WAR value over the past three years, but it’s nearly all defensive. The Braves, bless their hearts, were powerless to push runs across the plate in 2015. Shelby Miller lost 17 games with a 3.02 (!!!!) ERA. The Braves do have a player named Adonis, however, so there are probably some powerful things in their future.
So, Simmons and his hefty contract were swapped to the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim!) for two stud pitching prospects and infielder Erick Aybar who is signed for one more season and did cost his team runs thanks to his fielding in 2015. Aybar will stand at shortstop, field most balls hit directly at him, and be an average hitter for $8 million in 2016 and then be on his merry way. The Braves shed a contract they decided they wished they hadn’t given out, and get flexibility and two highly-rated pitching prospects, one of whom struck out 168 batters in 136 innings last year. Highly-rated pitching prospects are the number-one currency for teams that are five years away from relevancy.
Where does Simmons go from here? He’s not a bad hitter. Simmons is extremely difficult to strike out, with only 48 strikeouts all year. He puts the ball in play quite often, but not with much authority. The double play ball has always killed Simmons the hitter, and he has grounded into 44 over the past two years. Over the past three years, Simmons’ groundball rate has climbed from 42.4% all the way to 56.2%. While he was saving the Braves a lot of runs with his vacuum cleaner fielding, Simmons wasn’t actually doing much to create them with his stick. For an average salary of $13 million from 2018 to 2020, paying a contact hitter that much money to hit 275 ground balls was just too much for the Braves. No matter how many balls up the middle or in the hole Simmons gets to, the Braves will still have one of the worst teams in the league.
Can Simmons get better with the Angels? He actually does have a good handle of the strike zone. Simmons chased only 26.7% of the time last year. Walks don’t happen though, as Simmons makes contact with nearly everything near the strike zone. If the Angels can get the 26-year-old to alter his swing and begin driving the ball with more authority, it’s not difficult to see him growing into his 6’2″ frame and getting back near the 20 home run plateau. Simmons is trending in the wrong direction offensively, now it’s up to the Angels to get him hitting line drives again and being even more selective within the zone. If all that happens, the offensive value of Andrelton Simmons will begin approaching the defensive value, and the Braves will look like the real losers of the trade.
Until then, enjoy the shortstop wizardry, that much is certain with Andrelton Simmons.