COMMENTARY | After the Atlanta Braves brought in both of the Upton brothers (Justin and B.J.) to team with Jason Heyward in the revamped Atlanta outfield, many assumed the "Up, Up, and a-Hey" contingent would be the most important factor to this season.
However, the success of moving Andrelton Simmons from No. 8 in the order all the way up to the leadoff spot may actually have more to say about whether Atlanta will be able to overtake the Washington Nationals for the NL East crown.
Despite having roughly just a quarter of a season at the major-league level, Simmons now has the unenviable task of having to follow in the footsteps of Michael Bourn, who has really become the epitome of what a major-league table-setter is supposed to be. Bourn had an on-base percentage of .348 in 2012, as well as averaging 51 stolen bases per season over his last five tours of MLB duty. Adding to his ability to get on base, Bourn even managed to draw 70 bases on balls from the leadoff position last year.
For Simmons to be considered successful as the Atlanta leadoff hitter, we must first come to grips with the type of player he is not. First and foremost, fans cannot expect Simmons to be Michael Bourn. Andrelton Simmons is not someone who is going to steal a ton of bases. He stole just one bag in 49 total games last season. Simmons did show a proclivity to swipe some bases in the minors, but the most he ever pilfered was 26 back in 2010.
Andrelton Simmons is also not the type of player who goes up to the plate looking for walks. His 12 bases on balls from a season ago meant he was able to coax a free pass every 13.83 at-bats, while Michael Bourn took the slow jaunt to first once in every 8.9 ABs.
Now for the good news: Andrelton Simmons is a much better hitter than Michael Bourn. In 2012, Bourn struck out 155 times. Simmons had to turn and walk back to the dugout just 21 times last year, and he never went down swinging more than 43 times in any of his three minor-league seasons. The Braves should be able to expect much more contact out of the leadoff position in 2013.
In actuality, Simmons is probably best suited to be the prototypical two-hole hitter who makes contact, has gap power, and records a high OBP. But if you think the Braves are suddenly expecting Simmons to change the way he approaches the game to fit the concept of a leadoff hitter, you'd be wrong. Manager Fredi Gonzalez told MLB.com reporter Mark Bowman, "He's only going to see two pitches, and he's going to hit one for a double. Don't go out there thinking he's going to take a six-pitch at-bat and then walk."
That may sound good in theory, but what happens if the 23-year-old Simmons regresses or has extended slumps throughout the season? If Simmons isn't consistently getting on base in front of the heart of the Atlanta order then it could potentially change the entire outcome of games.
Instead of two- and three-run home runs, Atlanta may have to settle for solo shots. And an inability to work the count, in an effort to make the starting pitcher throw more pitches, could find opposing starters going deeper into games.
But then again, perhaps too much is made of finding that Kenny Lofton-style speedster for the top of the order. Andrelton Simmons might find his success at the top the same way in which the New York Yankees have used Derek Jeter in their leadoff role. Jeter stole just nine bases and walked only 45 times in 2012. However, the 13-time All-Star also hit .316, smacked 32 doubles, scored 99 runs, and tallied an OBP of .362. If Simmons can find a way to mirror this mode of leadoff hitter then the Atlanta Braves should be more than satisfied with the results.
On a team full of power hitters, Simmons may be the only viable option to use at the top of the order. Still, the success or failure of the 2013 Atlanta Braves' season might just rest on whether or not Simmons is able to consistently set the table for the big bats behind him.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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