The Angels were losing big in Seattle last weekend. There are days and nights like that. Mike Scioscia subbed out his starters, saving their legs and brain cells for a more realistic cause. They’d start over the next day.
The shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, did not take his position for the bottom of the sixth inning. He’d walked and struck out against the Mariners and otherwise played in 139 of 142 games. A few innings’ head start on Sunday morning was a reasonable course.
Simmons gathered his gear, including his bats. He nodded to one of the Angels’ coaches. They met in the batting cage behind the dugout. And for however much longer the game lasted, over three innings, an hour or more, Simmons hit. He hit live. He hit off a machine. He hit fastballs, sliders, curveballs. Already Saturday, he’d hit before batting practice, then in batting practice, then after batting practice. Then, those two plate appearances. And for three more innings.
“I think it’s therapy for him sometimes,” Scioscia said.
Simmons shrugged. He’d not thought of it that way. Teammates and coaches use words such as “obsessed,” such as “possessed.” He searches for “feel,” they said, that indescribable something that hunkers between the hands here, the bat head there, the stride to exactly there, the head clear or cluttered but still.
“I don’t know,” Simmons said. “Maybe it’s mental, emotional. I think I’m just trying to get better.”
Simmons, 28, is a few weeks – maybe longer – from the end of his most productive season. He remains a streaky hitter, having batted on the crummy side of .200 for a month, and remains the most adept defensive shortstop in the game, or near to it. He’s also batted .279 with 35 doubles, 14 home runs and 19 stolen bases. The reason this is important is because the Angels have clung to the American League wild-card leaders in spite of their many flaws, and without Simmons that probably doesn’t happen. And the reason it is interesting is because Simmons ranks second by one version of WAR and sixth by another, so he will be a name you hear when folks start talking about league MVP and why WAR may or may not be the best measure of that.
And before anyone runs down Andrelton Simmons because a statistic happens to love him, it’ll be important to remember he was part of the solution in Anaheim before he was the latest example of why some analytics work and others sometimes don’t.
We’re just getting out in front of this, because the guy is one of the elegant players in the league and he’s been a very good player for a team that hasn’t always had a lot to lean on. In the 38 games Mike Trout sat out with a torn thumb ligament, for example, Simmons hit .303 with a .346 on-base percentage, 11 doubles and five home runs. The Angels won half of those games, which is why they’re here, relevant in the wild-card slog.
“He’s so steady that maybe he’s not as spectacular as Mike [Trout] or [Jose] Altuve,” Scioscia said. “Guys that just light things up. What Andrelton does day to day though is spectacular.”
None of which is to say he’s the second- or sixth-best player in the league.
“I know the basic concept of WAR,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think I could calculate it.”
He added he was unaware of where he stood in that category.
“I haven’t been tracking anything,” he said. “I’m trying to win games. Trying to make the playoffs.”
He told a story then about being in the National League (with the Braves) and listening to an MVP debate over in the other league. Some said Miguel Cabrera. Others insisted it was the young guy in Anaheim. And Simmons looked at the numbers and didn’t quite get the disagreement. Cabrera was so good. All the statistics said so.
“Then,” Simmons said, “I got to play against Mike Trout. And I was like, ‘OK, this guy is pretty good.’ Then I came over here and I see what he does. The defense. The stolen bases. The pressure he puts on defenses. Never mind what he does with the bat. You see why he’s so valuable to a team. You see it’s not just all the numbers, the usual numbers you grow up watching.”
“So,” he said, “value is what?”
Well, they’re sorting that out.
A few weeks back, when the Dodgers were the best team any teenager had ever seen, the most popular question in the game was: How do they get beat? As in: Where’s their weakness? What fails them? Long conversations ensued. Arguments arose over pregame press-box spaghetti. It was the starting pitching, thin and yet over-performing. It was the bridge to Kenley Jansen, which couldn’t hold up. It was the offense, relying too heavily on young players who hadn’t yet been through the fire. Funny thing, too. Because, for a couple weeks at least, everybody was right.
It’s pretty much now or never for everyone in the American League wild-card race, and it’s not any different for the Seattle Mariners, but this is about the time it goes very well or very poorly for them. Felix Hernandez, who has made 13 starts in 2017 yet none since July 31, is scheduled to go Thursday in Texas. He’s most recently suffered from a shoulder injury. Then, on Friday in Houston, James Paxton (left pectoral) is scheduled for his first start since Aug. 10. Mariners starters have averaged 5 1/3 innings in the second half.
Seriously, this can’t really happen. Right? Even the Phillies in their worst calendar month won six games. The Giants are terrible and they never won fewer than nine across a month. In their ugliest month, the White Sox won six.
Still, along come the Dodgers into mid-September, one win in two weeks, another win Tuesday night, an oh-fer homestand behind them, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia out ahead, at a time when quality of opponent has no bearing.
Really, the new matchup is Dodgers vs. Dodgers’ psyches, which maybe would outdraw the Marlins but that’s about it.
There is one other element at work here: the NLCS. As in who gets Games 1 and 7 (and 2 and 6). As things stand – and granted, it’s on crutches, but it’s still standing – the Dodgers would host the wild-card winner and the Nationals would get the Cubs in the division series. The Dodgers eliminated the Nationals in D.C. last fall, but a Jansen-Kershaw bullpen probably isn’t the kind of outcome you’d rely on in consecutive years.
So, yeah, on a weekend that will have Cardinals at Cubs, Rangers at Angels and other series with postseason implications, it’s getting harder to look away from the Dodgers.
Friday: Alex Wood vs. Edwin Jackson
Saturday: Rich Hill vs. Stephen Strasburg
Sunday: Kenta Maeda vs. Gio Gonzalez