Andrelton Simmons Is Cool Again

Young players are fun, because young players are fresh. They give us something new to think about, keeping baseball just spicy enough to ward off too much boredom. Every young player comes with some form of strength, and it’s entertaining for a while. In time, we get used to it. Then there are new young players.

When Andrelton Simmons was younger, he was all over the internet. His strength was that he played like one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball history, and that made an immediate impression. It felt for a while like, every other day, there was a new Simmons clip that people would fawn over. And, justifiably so — Simmons was doing things other people couldn’t do. But, ultimately, humans are humans, and Simmons stopped feeling so exciting. We came to expect the defense. The bat didn’t develop. New players came around. Simmons turned just 27 last September, but he was all but absent from the conversation about the new wave of shortstops.

And, hell, that makes some since, given that by now Simmons counts as a veteran. This is his sixth year playing in the major leagues. I mentioned, though, that he’s only 27. Simmons is making himself relevant again. He’s showing off a new trick, one we waited for for years.

I think it’s pretty well understood how defensive aging curves work. That is, players tend to get worse pretty quickly, as they get older and lose some of their youthful athleticism. Simmons doesn’t have quite the same body he did five years ago, I’m sure, but just in case you were wondering, no, he hasn’t visibly lost a step. Simmons is still maybe the best defensive shortstop in baseball. I can’t prove that, but an argument exists. It’s about as strong as any other argument for any other player. Here’s a recent clip of Simmons making a classic Simmons play in the hole:

That’s fun! This is also fun. Painful even to watch, but fun nevertheless.

Meanwhile, here’s Simmons instantly changing direction on a dime.

Simmons is still outstanding in the field, is part of the point. That skill hasn’t deteriorated. What’s most notable is that more offense is starting to show. Simmons isn’t a great hitter, and I doubt he’ll ever be one. Yet he is an improving hitter, to say nothing of the fact that he’s also seemingly learned how to steal bases. That’s a neat extra ability, but on the year, Simmons has a 109 wRC+, which is two points lower than Francisco Lindor. Over the past *calendar* year, Simmons has a 108 wRC+, which is…two points lower than Francisco Lindor. This season, Simmons ranks fifth among shortstops in WAR. Over the past year, he still ranks fifth among shortstops in WAR. The list:

There’s effectively no difference between second and fifth. They’re all just there in a group, as Simmons has added enough at the plate to make himself a star. He’s unlikely to be recognized as such, but I doubt the Angels care about that, as long as Simmons does what he’s doing.

Simmons has always been good about making contact. For his career, he’s struck out in 9% of his plate appearances. For just this season, he’s struck out in 9% of his plate appearances. That gives him the fourth-lowest rate among qualified hitters, and, just for fun, over the past month, Simmons has struck out in 3% of his plate appearances, the lowest rate in baseball by far. Simmons has always gotten the bat on the ball. He’s gotten a modest boost from his current career-high 9% walk rate. Simmons has whiffed just one more time than he’s walked.

What’s of further interest is Simmons’ developing contact quality. Last night, he hit his seventh home run, after having hit four in each of the last two years. Now, I get it — home runs are everywhere these days. Many players are showing a home-run increase. But Simmons’ improved wRC+ reflects how he’s outpaced the mean. And for someone with such low power numbers in recent years, it’s not like Simmons is built to be a slap hitter. This home run, from not long ago, was a blast:

Simmons does possess actual pop. When he was younger, he arguably tried to tap into it too often, which led to a pop-up problem. That problem no longer exists. The strength is in there for Simmons to be dangerous, and just as interesting as the homer above is this recent homer in Houston:

Yeah, it only barely got out, but it did get out. That was the first opposite-field home run of Simmons’ career. It’s a sign of Simmons’ contact improvement, even to all fields.

Simmons’ hard-hit rate to the pull side is the highest it’s been in years. His hard-hit rate up the middle is higher than ever. His hard-hit rate to the opposite field is also higher than ever. Simmons, for the first time, has hard-hit rates of at least 30% in all three directions. Of the 201 current players in baseball with enough batted balls to all fields, only 41 of them meet the same criteria. That obviously doesn’t mean that Simmons has turned into an elite-level hitter, but any improvement is important, and he doesn’t need to be a slugger to be incredibly valuable.

Here are Simmons’ overall hard-hit rates, expressed not as raw rates, but rather as percentile rankings within MLB:

  • 2013: 21st percentile
  • 2014: 22nd
  • 2015: 9th
  • 2016: 3rd
  • 2017: 42nd

Year to year, Simmons has gone from having one of the very lowest rates to looking just about average. There are just seven hitters who have improved their hard-hit rates by at least 10 percentage points since last season, and Simmons is one of them. He’s there with names like Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Sano, and Brett Gardner. When you don’t strike out very often, your contact needs to be only so good. Simmons has crossed whatever the threshold might be.

This is what Simmons’ hard-hit rates have looked like over his career, over 60-game stretches:

Simmons hasn’t hit like this since 2014. Now, he did subsequently collapse, and that’s what you always have to worry about, but it’s encouraging to see that he’s hit the ball pretty well to all fields. That seems like it ought to protect him to some extent. I’ll also note that, while Simmons has gotten better about going to center and right, he’s willing to turn on a pitch if he sees the opportunity.

It’s been a while since Simmons has pulled the ball, too. He’s starting to show some of the thump he had early on with the Braves, but paired with a more mature approach. An approach that leads to fewer pop-ups and fewer empty flails. Simmons will still sometimes over-swing, and he’ll still sometimes flail, but he’s laying off enough garbage to avoid too many of the easy outs.

If you ask Simmons, he’ll probably say he feels better now than ever. Going into last season, and for a few months, Simmons used something of a leg kick in the box:

Some players like having a leg kick, and some players don’t. I don’t know whether it’s related, but Simmons’ offensive improvement is linked to his going back to a toe-tap:

He’s a little quieter, and although Josh Donaldson wouldn’t be better with a toe-tap, Simmons would swear by it. The evidence would suggest it’s been good for his timing. He’s stayed on more pitches more often, and he’s become something of a modest threat to every direction.

That’s all that Simmons needs. Think about it — he’s sort of like the Kevin Kiermaier of the infield. Kiermaier has a career 104 wRC+, but he’s been worth more than 5 WAR per 600 plate appearances. Simmons has been worth a little under 4 WAR per 600 plate appearances, with a career 87 wRC+. Any sort of offensive growth would turn Simmons into a greatly valuable everyday player, and the positive signs are present. He’s walking a little more. He still doesn’t strike out. And when he makes contact, he’s making just enough quality contact. Not Sano-level contact, but that isn’t necessary. Simmons has hit enough balls on a line, which is all that anyone wants him to do.

From all indications, Andrelton Simmons, today, is something like a league-average hitter. Maybe even a hair or two better than that. I don’t think the Angels could be more excited.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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It’s unfortunate how terrible Angels depth is plus that the rotation is made of glue. Calhoun, Simmons, Richards are fun. And yes I know they’ve been fluky good without Trout and I’m expecting dumb articles to come on how Angels are better without him