Shortstop had best 'defensive runs saved' season in statistic's 11-year existence
ATLANTA -- There are 10 blank lines on a National League Most Valuable Player Award ballot, 30 ballots in circulation. Freddie Freeman's name will likely appear on many of them, and for good reason: he was the offensive engine behind a Braves team that for much of the summer was the NL's best team.
But poll the Braves' clubhouse prior to Thursday's Game 1 of the NL Division Series against the Dodgers (8:30 p.m. ET on TBS), and a fair bit of disagreement surfaces over the identity of their most indispensable player. One name that continually surfaces is Andrelton Simmons, the Curaçaoan shortstop who can seemingly do no wrong with his glove.
"From my seat," Atlanta catcher Brian McCann said, "from where I'm at every single night, this guy is by far the ... ."
McCann paused only slightly.
"I mean, I don't want to get crazy, but what he does on the field defensively is a huge reason that we won as many games as we did," McCann finished.
Numbers explain what McCann stopped short of saying: from a sheer statistical standpoint, Simmons may be more valuable than Freeman, McCann, Jason Heyward or any of the Braves' brightest stars. Quite literally, no one else in baseball does what Simmons does. No one else saves as many runs.
It is more than mere conjecture. In the blurry world of advanced fielding metrics, there is a statistic called Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) that determines a fielder's ability, relative to his peers, to convert balls into outs. For example, if Simmons snares a hard line drive in a spot that has proven problematic for other shortstops, his DRS increases.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, the brains behind DRS, a 0 score is average. (Negative numbers are allowed.) A score of plus-5 is "above average," plus-10 is "great" and plus-15 is "Gold Glove caliber."
In 2013, Simmons was a plus-41.
It was the greatest single season in the 11-year history of DRS, and yet it was completely in line with Simmons' other advanced metric scores -- Ultimate Zone Rating and the like. That was why Simmons finished well above Freeman in FanGraphs' calculation of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a catch-all statistic designed to determine a player's overall value, and comparable to his teammate in Baseball Reference's version of WAR.
Simmons' prowess at baseball's most difficult defensive position is no longer a secret. Google searches reveal headlines such as, "Andrelton Simmons makes case for best fielding season ever," "Andrelton Simmons and his historic defensive wizardry," and "Andrelton Simmons will challenge your metaphysical beliefs." And that's just from the past six weeks. Simmons has been altering metaphysics for more than a full season now, providing value to the Braves on a daily basis.
"The eye test still works," Dodgers infielder Nick Punto said. "These days, all baseball minds can kind of see it, because of sabermetrics, but no baseball eye would miss a talent like him."
And yet Simmons is unlikely to receive much love from the MVP crowd for several reasons. One is that defensive metrics are not nearly as reliable as their well-established offensive counterparts. A home run is a home run, but a DRS is something far more ambiguous, relying on data from fallible human beings.
Another reason is that Simmons' offensive production does not come close to matching his defense. Though he is "not a zero" at the plate, as one NL MVP Award voter put it, he has his share of flaws. Of the 46 Major League players who received at least 650 plate appearances this season, Simmons ranked 44th in on-base percentage (.296) and 41st in OPS (.692).
"The lens that we look through to understand the game has changed a little bit, and I think those guys have gained a little bit more appreciation," said the MVP voter, who asked to remain anonymous, because ballot results will not be revealed until November. "But I couldn't get past some of the offensive shortcomings, particularly his on-base percentage. I would agree with people who say his defense makes it easy to overlook that, but I feel like there's a minimum offensive requirement to be an everyday offensive player."
That voter ranked Simmons 11th on his list of the NL's most valuable players. Yet there is no "minimum offensive requirement" for the Braves, who bestowed significant playing time upon statistically below-average hitters in Simmons and B.J. Upton. The result was a 96-win team that clinched its division two and a half weeks ago.
Simmons, for his part, says he has always excelled at defense. But it was not until junior college at Western Oklahoma State that he began to believe he could field every ball hit to him, in addition to feeling that he should. As Atlanta rookie pitcher Alex Wood put it, "There's no play he doesn't think he can make."
"I've gotten a lot wiser," said Simmons, now all of 24 years old. "I'm getting better jumps. I'm getting better reads off of swings. I'm trying to make better decisions. I feel like I've gotten smarter, and in time, I think I'm going to get better."
Imagine that -- the best shortstop in baseball somehow managing to improve. The thing about so many of Simmons' finest plays is that they do not seem all that difficult. Simmons' MLB.com highlight page contains 108 entries from this season, many of which appear to be routine defensive plays -- the type that, as Wood noted, "make it look like a tee-baller could do it."
The Braves know better. They understand Simmons' skill set and they place a premium on it, particularly considering the nature of their ground-ball pitching staff. No player in baseball gobbled up as many grounders as Simmons this season, extending his value that much further.
Sometimes, when he is crouched behind the plate, McCann even catches himself watching Simmons when he should be running full-speed to back up first base.
"I feel like I should buy a ticket," McCann said, shaking his head. "I feel like I've got the best seat in the house to watch him play."