Double trouble: Simmons an elite 2-way threat

August 23rd, 2017

is having the best season of his career, a season so good that he's very much in the discussion for the American League MVP Award. Most of the talk is about his suddenly spirited offense, which is obviously a new thing for Simmons. We are only in August, and already he has career highs in doubles, stolen bases and runs created, he's slugging 70 points higher than his career percentage and so on.
The excitement about Simmons' offense makes sense. When the Braves dealt Simmons to the Angels for highly regarded prospect (who is now in Atlanta's rotation) following the 2015 season, it was obvious that they had determined Simmons would never hit. Simmons was, after all, a defensive phenomenon, the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith (no matter what the Gold Glove voters might say). And he was a homegrown Braves player who had already been signed through '20. The only reason you deal a defensive warlock like that is if you have become convinced he won't hit enough.
The Braves were so convinced … and you couldn't exactly blame them. Simmons didn't get on base much, and he was a non-factor when he did (in three-plus seasons, he stole 16 bases and was caught 13 times). Whatever power potential he flashed as a 23-year-old (he hit 17 homers that season) was zapped -- in back-to-back seasons, he slugged under .340. The Braves decided that Simmons' fantastic defense could not fill the void he created in the lineup.
Simmons came to Los Angeles last year, and his offense immediately perked up. And this year, as mentioned, he's hitting like never before. Simmons' OPS in 2017 is .792 -- more than 100 points higher than his OPS in Atlanta (.666) -- and he should end the season with a career high in every single offensive category. And as a bonus, he has stolen 18 out of 22 bases. Simmons is like a different hitter.

The thing few seem to realize is this: Simmons is also like a different fielder.
Defensive WAR -- Baseball Reference's way of measuring defense -- estimates that Simmons is as great a defender as he has ever been. For Simmons' four full seasons leading into 2017, he averaged 3.9 WAR as a defender, which is extraordinary -- only Smith and Mark Belanger have had had so much defensive value over a four-year period according to the metric. And this year, Simmons is right on pace -- he has 3.2 Defensive WAR already. He is still a defensive maestro.
But here's the thing: Simmons is doing it in a completely different way. John Dewan's team over at "Baseball Info Solutions" breaks down every single play of the baseball season using detailed video study. They invented the innovative "Plus-Minus" system. To explain it as simply as possible: If a fielder makes a dazzling play that, say, 87 percent of the other players on his position do not make (based on where the ball is hit and how hard it is hit), he gets .87 credited to his record. If he fails to make a play that half the fielders in baseball would have made, he has .50 subtracted.
And at the end of the season, you have a plus/minus score that shows how your defense compares to the league average.
Well, Simmons' plus/minus scores have always been dazzling -- for his career, he's plus-165, which is outrageous. But here's the interesting part: Until this year, Simmons' plus defense has always been on balls hit to his right. Nobody in baseball -- and few people in the history of baseball -- were as good as Simmons going to his right.
In 2013 -- one of the greatest defensive seasons of our time -- Simmons was an extraordinary plus-27 on balls hit to his right. The next year, he was plus-29. Until this year, Simmons has never been less than plus-20 on balls to his right.
And to his left? Not as good. In his four full seasons before this one, Simmons was minus-12 on balls to his left. This was how he played defense -- he shaded right, and using his balletic movement and cannon arm, he looked to take away every possible hit that might slip through the hole between short and third. Simmons was a right-handed pull hitter's worst nightmare. And for this, he was willing to sacrifice a few ground balls hit to his left. This year? It's exactly the opposite.

This year, Simmons is plus-zero on balls hit to his right. But he's a sensational plus-15 on balls hit to his left.
What gives? Well, the folks at Statcast™ are still developing more sophisticated ways to look at infield defense, but positioning data shows that Simmons has definitely adjusted his alignment this year. He's playing closer to second base -- perhaps as much as 10 feet closer to the bag -- and he has a more consistent starting point (meaning he's not moving around as much for different hitters).
The point is: Simmons fundamentally has changed the way he plays defense -- maybe as an adjustment to the AL, maybe to take some pressure off his arm, maybe because he and the Angels believe there is more value these days going left -- and yet he is, by objective measures, as great as ever. Now that's a ballplayer.
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Bonus note: Curacao is an island country with a population of roughly 160,000 people. There are roughly as many people in Peoria, Ariz., as there are on the entire Island of Curacao.
And yet two of the greatest defensive players in baseball history -- Andruw Jones and Simmons -- are from Curacao. Not only that, but you could make a viable argument (one many would disagree with, but a viable one) that Jones is the greatest defensive center fielder ever and Simmons will be the greatest defensive shortstop ever when he's done.
This is bizarre and wonderful.