Under-radar MVP pick? Consider Andrelton

With third-best BA among shortstops, veteran's bat catches up to glove

August 4th, 2017

What if is having the quietest great season in years?

Simmons checks off all the boxes to be overlooked, doesn't he? He generates value more from defense than his bat, never once having had a full season as a league-average hitter. The best player on Simmons' team (Mike Trout) also happens to be the best player in baseball, taking most of the Anaheim spotlight. The Majors are currently stacked with great young shortstops, like and . Plus, thanks to the Astros, the Angels haven't had a division race to participate in.

So if you haven't noticed that Simmons has been one of the 10 most valuable all-around players in baseball this year, we'll forgive you; we hadn't really, either. So let's change that, right now. By FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement, Simmons is eighth, at 4.3 WAR. Per Baseball-Reference, he's second. Minor variations in methodology aside, that's elite either way. But how?

It starts with the defense; with Simmons, it always does. Defensive Runs Saved considers him the best shortstop (+18 runs) and the third-best player overall, behind and , this year. Ultimate Zone Rating has him fifth overall, and also the best shortstop. Using a position-adjusted version of those metrics -- shortstop is harder to play than right field, obviously -- he's the most valuable defender in baseball.

None of that is shocking. You could say that Simmons has been one of baseball's best defenders every year of his career; if there's news here, it's that six seasons into his career, that skill hasn't taken a step back. No talented young competitor like has been able to overtake him. Simmons, as he always does, remains the gold standard.

Not only that, there's actually some evidence that Simmons is still improving, from a skills perspective. In 2015, the first year of Statcast™, his average arm strength on "max effort" throws was 84.6 mph, approximately equal to the Major League average of 84.3 mph. Last year, even around an injured right thumb, it was an identical 84.6 mph. This year, that's jumped to 86.4 mph, the fourth highest of any shortstop with 10 throws, behind only Correa,  and .

This year, Simmons is one of only five shortstops to touch 90 mph on a throw, topping out at 91.4 mph on this fantastic relay to nail Cleveland's last month. That's impressive.

We're seeing the same with Simmons' maximum foot speed, too. Earlier this year, we introduced Sprint Speed, which measures running speed in terms of feet per second, in the runner's fastest one-second window. The Major League average is 27 feet per second, and the range goes from approximately 23 feet per second (the slowest catchers) to an elite 30 feet per second, where and Buxton live.

Simmons has increased his Sprint Speed number each year, from a roughly average 27.1 feet per second in 2015 to 27.4 feet per second last year to to 27.8 feet per second this year, making him above average not only for the Majors, but for shortstops as well. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his stolen base totals have gone up with the speed boost.

Now, is a third of a foot per second each year a large and meaningful increase? Perhaps not, but the point is that an increase of any kind is relatively rare, especially as a player ages -- speed peaks young. As we said at the time, we looked at nearly 700 pairings of consecutive seasons for a player, and we found that 23 percent got at least a half foot/second slower, but only seven percent got at least a half foot/second faster. It's easy to get slower; it's hard to be faster.

Of course, we've totally buried the lead here. As we said, Simmons has always been a defensive star. But with a .303/.353/.460 line entering Friday's game, he has suddenly added offensive value he's never had before. Other than Simmons' partial rookie season of 2012, when he had only 182 plate appearances, he's never been a league-average hitter. Now, his batting average is the third-best among shortstops, behind only Correa and .

After teasing us with 17 homers in 2013, his first full season, Simmons hit only 15 over the next three seasons combined. In 2014, he bottomed out with a .244/.286/.331 line, but there has been an upward trend for years.

Now, of the 189 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, Simmons is tied for 51st in wRC+. That's not elite, but with his glove, it doesn't need to be, and he's in the top third, production-wise. For example, Simmons' park-adjusted line comes out to being 22 percentage points above average, which is basically the same as batting stars like ,  and Joey Gallo. It's better than , Mike Moustakas or .

What fueled that? In March, Simmons told local media that his strategy had changed, that instead of just swinging at strikes, he would focus more on swinging at "my" pitches. Indeed, his percentage of swings at pitches in the zone has dropped from 67 percent to 62 percent, and he's also pulling the ball far more, from 35 percent to 45 percent of balls in play.

Simmons didn't detail what sort of pitches were "his" pitches, but the data helps tell the story. In 2015, he went after 41 percent of offspeed pitches in the zone. In 2016, it was an identical 41 percent. This year, it's just 34 percent. Instead, Simmons' strategy seems to be more about getting ahead in the count and punishing fastballs. His average on fastballs in the zone, when ahead in the count, has shot up from .289 to .312 to a massive .385 over the past three years.

Pairing a league-average bat with an elite glove would be a star-level player. Pairing this bat with his glove makes him a borderline MVP Award candidate, though Simmons will likely finish in the second tier behind and . There are so many good shortstops in baseball, like Seager and Russell, like Correa and . Simmons might not be in the spotlight as much, but he's not to be forgotten, either.