The Andrelton Simmons highlight page is baseball pornography. For such a repository of rewatachability, the descriptions of the varying things he does from his shortstop position for the Atlanta Braves are comically simple. "Simmons' barehanded play," a recent one says. "Simmons' sliding stop," another advertises. "Simmons' strong throw," a third offers. This is like walking into a Bentley dealership with a cardboard sign out front that says: "Cars."
There are more. "Simmons' diving grab" and "Simmons' nice catch" and is there a three-word limit on these things? Actually, exceptions to that rule do exist. There is one clip, from Aug. 17, called "Simmons' big double play." It dehydrates a play about which a million words could be written to just four.
It was the top of the 14th. The Braves and the Washington Nationals were tied at seven. There were runners on first and second and pitcher Craig Stammen stood at the plate. He faked bunt, which sent Simmons toward third base to cover on the wheel play. Stammen then yanked his bat back an executed the slash play perfectly, bouncing a ground ball toward the middle of the field and seemingly into center field until this blur comes racing back from near third.
Andrelton Simmons isn't all that fast. More important, he thinks geometrically, knows instinctively the perfect angle to play every time, and on this one he was running right toward the second-base bag. He believed he would get a force play, and he did, stepping on the back with his right foot and leaving his body in impossible position to make a throw to first base. Simmons' hips and legs faced right field. The anatomy just didn't work.
Except the way Simmons stepped on the bag, with his foot was pointed toward first base, allowed him to seamlessly pivot his torso back to the infield and throw out Stammen. This was athleticism, artistry and ballet, the new best ever from a guy who one time fielded a ball and flipped it behind his back – to himself.
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Defense is the bastion of the baseball hipster, and Simmons is their ironic T-shirt and beard. The movement within front office and sabermetric circles to quantify what a player does in the field as well as they do what he does in the batter's box and on the mound has led to a revolution in the appreciation for fielding. And it has prompted a question that has no answer but is nevertheless fun to consider.
Is Andrelton Simmons having the best fielding season ever?
The greatest objective measures for such things, it is believed, are property of the teams around baseball that invest millions of dollars into computer programs, analysts and other tools that help create proprietary metrics that give the best measure of how much a player contributes defensively. So it is best to start there with a simple question: Is Simmons the best shortstop in baseball today?
An executive from one of those teams' front offices says metrics and scouts agree unequivocally. It's not like he has no competition, either. Jose Iglesias did this. Troy Tulowitzki is a wizard. A dozen others merit mention. None is Simmons, though. None has the combination of glove, arm, feet and instincts, the fearsome foursome of fielding. Check out the highlights page. Yes, it's SFW.
Next question: Is he the best fielder today? This is where we can bring in one respected metric: Ultimate Zone Rating from FanGraphs. Now, UZR has its flaws. It's barely a decade old, so the sample size is minuscule. The greatest UZR season ever is from Alfonso Soriano, which is like a kid smearing finger paints on the wall and having it resemble the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. Not a great place to start. UZR does, however, tend to dovetail with widely held scouting opinions about defense, and it says Simmons is 23.9 runs above average, which is quite good. Just not as good as Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado, who is 27.3 runs above average. According to UZR, Simmons isn't even the best fielder in the game this year.
Granted, that's just one metric, one that has Soriano's Folly, so we surge on to the ultimate issue: Where does Simmons rank all-time? The only objective measure that dates back to the turn of the 20th century is Baseball-Reference.com's defensive Wins Above Replacement. From 2003 on, it uses Defensive Runs Saved, and Simmons +39 is higher than any player in its 11 years of existence. And before then, it relies on a metric called Total Zone Rating, which is a wonderful attempt at trying to evaluate past defense – and is entirely unreliable because of the scarcity of fielding data from anytime in the 1900s.
Based on those measures, one player in baseball history had a better fielding season than Andrelton Simmons in 2013. His name was Terry Turner, and in 1906, according to Total Zone Rating, he produced 5.3 wins alone with his glove at shortstop. Over the next 13 seasons, TZR would assign Turner 12.1 wins for his fielding. It is safe to say 1906 was an outlier.
And if one chalks Turner's numbers up to bad data – certainly a reasonable case can be made to do so – then Simmons' 5.1 wins, based off his 39 runs saved, is the highest figure in baseball history. Higher than Mark Belanger's 4.9 in 1975. More than Ozzie Smith's 4.7 in 1989. Better than any of Brooks Robinson's best seasons.
There is no correct answer, of course, just as it's impossible to say Mike Trout in 2013 was better than Mickey Mantle in 1955 because his WAR is better. These metrics are supposed to help better bridge the gap between eras. They're just as good at muddying them.
Which is all well and good, because at the end of the day, if the Simmons fanboys want to raise a PBR to him and drink to the greatest season ever, it will be tough to argue against it.
Stitched in cursive on Andrelton Simmons' glove are two words: "God Given." If his highlight page were to showcase his next incredible play with "Simmons, God Given," that might be the only palatable three-word phrase to do him justice.
He realizes this, too. Simmons turned 24 a little more than a week ago, and ever since he signed with the Braves as a second-round pick out of Western Oklahoma State, he has been told his talent in the field is preternatural. Most teams liked Simmons as a pitcher – he threw 98 mph as a closer for the junior college that recruited him out of Curacao – but the Braves recognized an up-the-middle lottery ticket is far likelier to hit jackpot than another hard-throwing arm.
Simmons arrived in the majors last season with the reputation as the next great shortstop, and as much hype hangs on players upon their debuts, he was one of the few who exceeded it. And not just by a little, either. Braves first-base coach Terry Pendleton spent seven seasons playing third base alongside the greatest fielding shortstop ever, Ozzie Smith.
"And that's where this kid's getting to," Pendleton said. "The rest of us ooh and ahh about it. But I'm to the point now where when he doesn't do something I'm more surprised. And the kid's only got a year in the big leagues.
"He just has a knack for it. And you see when something else goes on, he's always thinking about the next thing. Or there's a play over here and he's thinking about what he can do with it. And those are the things that I watched Ozzie Smith do. And I'm quite sure, at Ozzie's age, he's doing the same thing."
For Simmons, it is just … him. He doesn't know how he slides, pops up and throws in one motion. Maybe it's the soccer he played from age 13 on – the game that taught him how to tackle and nearly stole him away from baseball full-time. He's not certain why he can always approach a ball exactly where he must. His dad, Elston, was a cop. Maybe there's an inherent knack for right-place, right-time. He can't say why his left hand is so soft and his right hand so turbocharged. Maybe there is something to that higher being.
"To understand the game like he does, and make the plays that he makes," Braves catcher Gerald Laird said. "When his career is over, I don't know if five people are gonna have enough hands for all his Gold Gloves."
Those are still the standard for measuring defensive excellence, even if they often go to the best fielders … who also can hit. Or, in some cases, the worst fielders who really can hit. Since the All-Star break, Simmons is more than holding his own there as well. His .812 OPS is third among shortstops, ahead of Tulowitzki, Ian Desmond and Jose Reyes.
The bat is gravy. No matter how well he swings it, Simmons is here for what he does in the field. His favorite play of the year is called "Simmons' tough play." For the Simmons oeuvre, it isn't all that spectacular. Denard Span led off a game with a ground ball to the left side. Simmons picked it on his backhand side – Pendleton said he takes almost every grounder there pregame – and fired an off-balance, one-hop throw to get Span by a step.
"You know one thing about short: You have time to think what you're doing," he said. "The double play – I could see that play develop. I figured I could beat him to the bag and maybe get two. This one, I had to go and get it and make a throw to first to get a really fast guy. I didn't have time to think."
On the surface, picking that play is like picking "A Day In the Life" as the best Beatles song. It is different, and it is quirky, and it is beautiful in its own way. Not everybody likes it, but it's impossible to hate, because technically, it is pretty damn flawless.
For Andrelton Simmons' fielding, that sounds about right.