A little over a month ago, the Diamondbacks signed David Peralta to a three-year, $22 million contract extension. It was a little odd to see Arizona commit to the veteran outfielder for the next three seasons. The 32-year-old was in his final year of arbitration, but the total value of the contract made it a low-risk move for the club and a risk-mitigating decision for Peralta. On Monday, the Diamondbacks were at it again, this time signing Nick Ahmed to a four-year, $32.5 million extension.
Ahmed was also in his final year of arbitration so the new deal buys out his first three years of free agency. But unlike Peralta, Ahmed was facing an ugly arbitration hearing to fight over just $350,000. Ahmed was seeking $6.95 million while the Diamondbacks countered with $6.6 million. The soon-to-be 30-year-old will instead take home even more than he bargained for in 2020 — reportedly a $6 million salary but with a $1.5 million signing bonus — as well as long-term security over the next four years.
Along with Peralta, Ahmed represents a core-adjacent player who should provide solid production for the team as they move into the second year of their soft reset. With Madison Bumgarner and Starling Marte now on board as well as a restocked farm system, the Diamondbacks look poised to challenge for the National League Wild Card. It’s a shame an NL West rival had to go and acquire a former MVP right fielder, all but locking up the division in February. Locking up Peralta and Ahmed to affordable contracts now gives Arizona cost certainty for the next few seasons as they look to graduate a number of prospects over the next couple of years with the payroll room to add additional talent via free agency.
Ahmed certainly earned his extension with a career-best season in 2019. He set personal highs in nearly every major offensive category and his elite defense earned him his second Gold Glove award in a row. Still, despite adding a little more power and improving his walk rate to right around league average, his overall offensive line amounted to just a 92 wRC+. That limited offensive profile limited him to just 2.4 WAR in 2019 and just 4.2 WAR over the last two seasons.
There aren’t many precedents for an extension given to a light-hitting shortstop with elite defense. Fielding has continued to be an area teams have refused to pay top dollar for, even for the best defenders in the game. Back in 2014 and 2015, the Braves and Giants handed out extensions to Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford. Those two seem to be the closest comparisons for Ahmed, despite being signed in almost a completely different era due to the changes in the run-scoring environment since then.
|Nick Ahmed||2018-19||30||5.054||89||7.8||4.2||4 yrs, $32.5 M|
|Andrelton Simmons||2012-13||24||1.125||94||20.3||5.3||8 yrs, $58 M|
|Brandon Crawford||2011-15||29||4.094||95||5.5||11.5||6 yrs, $75 M|
Simmons was a top prospect who had finally established himself at the major league level and his extension reflects his dearth of service time. Crawford signed his a year earlier than Ahmed and was coming off a breakout season in 2015 in which he was worth 4.3 WAR. Neither is a perfect comparison for our purposes, but they provide a rough framework for what the Diamondbacks offered Ahmed.
The UZR/150 listed in the table above is a little misleading too. UZR is far less impressed with Ahmed’s glove than DRS or Statcast’s new Infield Outs Above Average (OAA). By DRS, Ahmed has saved 39 runs with his glove over the last two seasons, the best mark for a shortstop in the majors. Statcast is similarly impressed, estimating his defensive prowess to be 45 outs above average since 2018, easily the most outs converted by a shortstop in that period.
Since UZR is a zone-based defensive metric, it’s a lot less sophisticated than the range-based OAA. It doesn’t take into account starting position, defensive shifting, and other factors that OAA can track. Because Statcast can track every event on the field, OAA takes into account the positioning of the fielder, the speed of the runner, the velocity of the batted ball, and the strength of the throw. Ahmed actually ended up with the largest difference between his OAA and UZR among qualified fielders in 2019. The Diamondbacks shifted their infield an above-average amount last year, and his average starting position was one of the deepest for a shortstop. But that positioning played to his strengths as he earned 10 outs above average when moving in on the ball.
Ahmed’s offensive breakout began back in 2018. After suffering through two injury-shortened campaigns in 2016 and 2017, Ahmed made some real adjustments to his approach at the plate. Jeff Sullivan examined the changes he made in this post from April 2018:
“Last season, Ahmed’s low-pitch swing rate ranked in the highest 12% of all hitters. So far this season, it ranks in the lowest 5% of all hitters. This is something Ahmed has implemented almost instantly, which seems to reflect a discerning batter’s eye. Ahmed is seeing the pitches he doesn’t like out of the hand, and now, for the most part, he’s spitting on them. … Ahmed wants to swing at pitches up. That’s where he finds his pop and line drives. For one month, at least, he has clearly been successful.”
Last season, Ahmed continued to hone his plate discipline. He lowered his chase rate by three points while keeping his overall swing rate relatively stable. That means he swung more often at pitches in the zone helping him increase his contact rate by more than three points to just under 80%. He posted the highest walk rate of his career, and the lowest strikeout rate since his first full season in 2015, all while continuing to hit for a little more power.
And there may be some untapped power left in his bat. He increased his isolated power by a few points in 2019 despite his groundball rate returning to where it was prior to his 2018 breakout. His barrel rate and the rate of batted balls hit over 95 mph reached new career highs. If he’s able to continue honing his swing to generate more contact in the air, it’s possible he could see a Crawford-esque breakout in 2020.
Even if that offensive breakout doesn’t happen, ZiPS projects that he’ll continue to hit at just below a league-average rate through the four years of his contract.
For an elite defensive shortstop, a nearly-league-average bat is a nice bonus. And even though defense tends to have a sharp aging curve, Ahmed is so good that even if his range deteriorates towards the end of his contract, he’ll end up being merely a good defensive shortstop rather than an elite one. If he’s able to get his bat up to or above league average, he’ll quickly become one of the better shortstops in the National League. That’s the upside the Diamondbacks are hoping to see from Ahmed. Signing him to this extension is a low-risk move with the potential for more.