How Did Previous Andrelton Simmonses Age?

Last night, the Braves traded Andrelton Simmons to the Angels for Erick Aybar and a couple of pitching prospects. While it’s likely that Atlanta’s staff made this deal primarily to acquire Sean Newcomb, a big left-hander with high-end stuff and strikeout rates to match, I think it’s fair to categorize this return as surprisingly light. Newcomb is brimming with upside, but he’s still a pitching prospect who hasn’t yet figured out how to throw strikes on a regular basis, and has made all of seven starts above A-ball. He could figure things out and become an ace, or he could go the Archie Bradley path, where the stuff declines before the command gets better, and the Braves could end up with little to show for trading away the best defensive player on the planet.

But therein lies the rub. While everyone agrees that Simmons is a great defensive player, the Braves don’t appear particularly interested in betting on elite defenders aging particularly well. They balked at Jason Heyward’s salary requests in long-term negotiations, then traded him last winter, rather than keeping a 25 year old star outfielder around as a core building block. Now, for the second time in as many years, the Braves have traded elite defense in a young player for pitching potential, seemingly believing that it is easier to find a good defender with offensive question marks than a power arm who racks up strikeouts.

And as I noted yesterday, there might be some logic to that idea, given that there’s evidence that defensive skills peak earlier than offensive skills. The athleticism that allows a player to make plays that his peers can’t make is more vital for defensive value than hitting skills, and it’s possible (and probably even likely) that the Braves saw the potential for Simmons to lose value in the near future, if his defensive value dipped and his offense didn’t improve to offset the decline. So, it’s probably worth exploring how previous elite defenders have aged, and see if we can find support for the idea that the Braves were selling high before a coming decline.

To answer that question, we have to look at how the best of the best of the young defenders in recent baseball history have performed during the same stretch of their career as Simmons is headed towards. To find other players who have demonstrated similar levels of defensive value, I dumped our leaderboards into Excel and looked for players who racked up significant defensive value through their age-25 season. Given that we only have UZR and DRS dating back to 2002, but I wanted to look at a larger swath of players, I grouped players by their DEF value per 600 plate appearances; DEF is a combination of UZR and the positional adjustment for 2002-2015, and Total Zone and the positional adjustment for all years before 2002. Here are 10 players in baseball history (excluding catchers, who age pretty differently because of the nature of their job) who have compiled a rating of at least 20 defensive runs above average during the 18-25 portions of their career.

The Best Defenders of Their Time, 18-25
Name PA OFF/600 DEF/600 WAR/600
Ozzie Guillen 2926 -25 28 2.3
Mark Belanger 1350 -16 28 2.8
Andrelton Simmons 1999 -12 27 3.5
Andruw Jones 3971 10 26 5.5
Omar Vizquel 1725 -21 25 2.4
Jim Sundberg 1485 -15 23 2.8
Hal Lanier 1559 -37 23 0.3
Rico Petrocelli 1579 -2 22 4.0
Paul Blair 2096 11 20 5.0
Bobby Grich 2074 18 20 6.1
Average 2085 -9 24 3.5

Unsurprisingly, most of these guys couldn’t hit; there’s usually an inverse relationship between offensive value and defensive value, and the best young defenders we’ve ever seen almost all forced their way into the line-up despite offensive limitations. The fact that Hal Lanier held down a starting job while running a wRC+ in the low 40s should tell you just how remarkable his glove must have been. On average, these 10 players combined for per season ratings (up through age-25) of -9 offensive runs per 600 PA and +24 defensive runs per 600 PA; this made them above average players, but ones where their value was heavily skewed towards the defensive side of the ball. At -12/+27, Simmons is slightly more extreme than even this group, but the group is, overall, a pretty good match for his early career performance.

So, how much of that defensive value did these players maintain after age-25? And perhaps just as important, what happened to their offensive performances from ages 26-30, which are the years the Braves would have controlled Simmons had they not made this trade.

The Best Defenders of Their Time, 26-30
Name PA OFF/600 DEF/600 WAR/600
Ozzie Guillen 2037 -21 19 1.8
Mark Belanger 2544 -17 28 3.0
Andruw Jones 3305 10 21 5.0
Omar Vizquel 2839 -12 13 2.1
Jim Sundberg 2663 4 20 4.5
Hal Lanier 1424 -38 12 -0.8
Rico Petrocelli 2982 16 12 4.9
Paul Blair 2786 4 17 4.1
Bobby Grich 2695 20 8 5.0
Average 2586 -4 16 3.3

Not surprisingly, every player on the list remained a well above average defender, and in most cases, were still among the best defensive players in the game, but note that they did indeed decline in defensive value as they gold older. The group’s average DEF/600 fell from +24 to +16, so they lost nearly a win per season in defensive value as they reached the years normally described as a player’s prime. While Mark Belanger bucked the trend, and Jim Sundberg was able to retain most of his fielding value, the majority of these guys saw their defensive performances drop off in their 26-30 years.

But because they were dropping off from such a high level, they remained valuable contributors even without historic defensive value, and it’s worth noting that their offensive performances did offset some of the defensive decline; the group went from -9 OFF/600 to -4 OFF/600, pushing them closer to the league average in terms of overall offense. Jim Sundberg made the biggest leap, going from being a hitter even worse than Simmons is now to an above average hitter during his peak, putting up +20 WAR during that 26-30 part of his career.

Overall, the group’s production barely moved at all; their +3.5 WAR/600 from 18-25 was almost matched by their +3.3 WAR/600 from age 26-30. They got better offensively and worse defensively, so they weren’t the same extreme kind of above average players they were earlier in their careers, but overall, they remained quite productive with a skillset that still leaned towards the defensive side of the ball. And it’s not like one guy is pulling up the average here; Lanier is the only one of these nine elite young defenders who bombed out as he got older, but his offensive performances were so poor that there’s no real reason to think Simmons is going to follow his path.

It’s worth noting that this aging curve almost identically matches what Dan Szymborski’s five year ZIPS projection for Simmons suggests. In the trade value series from this summer, where Simmons rated #30 overall, I noted that the forecast expects him to put up +17.5 WAR over the next five years, as it believes that he’ll decline slightly over the next few years but remain a +3 to +4 WAR player during the remainder of his contract. While it might be tempting to think ZIPS might struggle with extreme versions of defensive-value players, the other nine guys in history who played the field like Simmons early in their careers suggest that we shouldn’t expect a steep aging curve here.

And because I created an artificial cutoff of +20 DEF/600, we actually ended up omitting the guy who makes the best case for Simmons’ long-term value. Ozzie Smith graded out at +19 DEF/600 by Total Zone’s numbers in his 18-25 years, but then jumped up to +23 DEF/600 from 26-30, while also going from -17 OFF/600 to -5 OFF/600, turning himself from an average player into a star. Smith is the guy Simmons is most often compared to, given his elite defense and high contact rates, and it’s worth noting that he does provide precedent for some upside here. And it’s not just Smith, either; Terry Pendelton also rated at -18 OFF/600 and +19 DEF/600 through age-25, then jumped to +1/+11, so his offense improved more than his defense declined, and he got better as he got older as well.

Smith and Pendleton are at the top of a much larger group (29 players) that ranked between +15 and +19 DEF early in their careers, and as a whole, this group actually went through larger changes. As a group, they put up -6 OFF/600 and +16 DEF/600 from 18-25, so they were just less extreme versions of the bad hit/good field player, but from 26-30, these 29 players combined for +3/+3 ratings; they got a lot worse defensively, but got a lot better offensively, and so their WAR/600 went from +3.1 to +2.7, even with the big defensive drop-off.

So, yes, history suggests that Andrelton Simmons is going to get worse defensively in Anaheim, and we shouldn’t expect him to continue putting up +20 UZRs for much longer. But that history also suggests that the same trends that take some value from his glove should add some back to his bat, and that overall, Simmons should be expected to remain roughly as valuable as he has been to this point in his career. And that’s pretty darn valuable.

For the Angels, this looks like a pretty great deal, picking up one of the best shortstops in baseball for a couple of high variance pitching prospects, plus one year of Erick Aybar. For the Braves, well, I hope they’re right about Sean Newcomb.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

Worst trade in decades. Whoever agreed to this travesty on behalf of the Braves should be run out of town on a rail.

And I’m not even a Braves fan. THOSE guys are furious.

8 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

Yes, as a Braves fan, this is by far more demoralizing than all the trades last year put together. Last year seemed like “we might have a rough year or two.” Getting rid of a guy with 5 cheap to cheapish years? Fuck that.

8 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

Ditto. What will be interesting is when they have 97 B- pitching prospects that they have to protect on a 40-man roster. Which one(s) will go on to be Rule V steals for some other club?

And all of this just makes the Nick Markakis signing even more ridiculous. Not to mention the Hector Olivera trade.

8 years ago
Reply to  tz

2 years ago the Braves won 96 games and the division by ten games.

Here’s the core of that team, with their ages –

Freddie Freeman, 23
Andrelton Simmons, 23
Jason Heyward, 23
Justin Upton, 25
Mike Minor, 25
Kris Medlen, 27
Julio Teheran, 22
Craig Kimbrel, 25
Alex Wood, 22
Jordan Walden, 25
Luis Avilan, 23

Now they’re a complete utter tear-down, with only a couple of those guys still on the team.

Like – what happened???

(I mean, I know what happened with most of those guys – some injuries, some contracts set to end, some regression, etc. But in total it must feel like a sucker punch to Braves’ fans.)

8 years ago
Reply to  tz

To be fair, Brian, of the 11 names mentioned, only two of those traded were younger guys who were long term options for the Braves (Simmons and Wood).

Freeman and Teheran are still actually Braves (for now). Kimbrel was nice, but his contract was high for a reliever and he allowed the Braves to move BJ and gain prospects, so that’s overall a big win in my book. Minor is at the moment a Brave, but an injury issue and could be non-tendered. That’s also what happened to Medlen. Heyward and Upton, as you said, were expiring contracts and good moves. Walden and Avilan are relievers and not really worth mentioning.

So it’s not quite as bad as it looks in terms of selling off a bunch of young guys for questionable returns. I think they took big risks in two trades, and those risks could very well pay off. They basically need Sean Newcomb to post about 15 WAR during his six years of control (assuming he’s not traded), and it’s an even swap if Simmons keeps putting up the same production he is now for the next 5 years of the contract, as Dave suggests (and I question if the bat will get better, which is something I’m working on).

I thought the Braves would trade Simmons, but I thought it would be another year or two down the line when Albies was close and Simmons contract was escalating, but maybe the Braves thought his value would be lower by then due to age/contract issues as much as performance. They are also banking on Albies panning out, and quickly, it seems. If he does, then that mitigates the damage as well as he sounds like a guy who is a notch down from Simmons defensively, but does also bring offensive value. In two or three years, his overall value could very well surpass that of Simmons and his cost is much less.

Getting value out of Aybar and that other good prospect (who no one is really talking about to the point I forgot his name) would just add to the value of the trade even if Newcomb winds up as a mid-rotation guy, and he has the stuff to front a rotation. Of course, he could not pan out at all, so there’s that.

This is definitely high risk, but it also could potentially be very high reward.

8 years ago
Reply to  tz

Jason Heyward and Upton would be gone right now regardless. The team just made they they got a ton of prospects during a year when keeping both would not have gotten them to the playoffs.

Mike Minor, Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy were all hurt and had to be non-tendered (Minor will possibly be non-tendered this offseason)

Luis Avilan sucks

Which leaves you with Freeman, Simmons, Kimbrel, Wood and a whole lot of nothing. They’ve gotten rid of assets who would have cheap valuable seasons while the Braves weren’t competing, which would be a huge waste. By trading Simmons and his most valuable years left in ’16/’17/’18 they get Newcomb whose valuable years will be ’18/’19/’20 when the rest of the team (Albies, Mallex, and the glut of other pitchers) is ready to compete as well. Of course the Olivera trade doesn’t really fit into any of this so I dont know what the fuck is up with that.

8 years ago
Reply to  tz

Brian, it’s definitely a bit of a sucker-punch… I mean, people get that rebuilds happen, but it’s weird to be shipping off 26 yr olds…

Keep in mind that if you’re a long-term fan, then you’ve sat through year after year after year of mind-numbingly painful playoff flops… and a lot of fans will tell you that ever since Ted sold the team the front office hasn’t really made a genuine effort to build a championship. Sure, they’re smart enough to build a team that’ll win juuuuust enough games to put butts in the seats, but every single painful faceplant in the playoffs is always followed up with a half-assed offseason and mostly penny-pinched lineup. Everyone gets that most teams can’t be the Yankees, that’s not the point. The point is that at some you’ve got throw people a damn bone and this double-rebuild, clear-cut, obliteration of what was a very young, exciting team is a bit too much for most to stomach. I live in ATL and I have a lot of friends that are really into baseball and I can’t think of anyone that’s going to forgive this team for how they’ve handled the last 10 years.

8 years ago
Reply to  tz

>Jason Heyward and Upton would be gone right now regardless.

Why, because they’re too cheap to sign them? Why is it that every other franchise has been able to lock up every other star young player through their prime years but the Braves couldn’t lock up 2 of them? Those are 2 great players you build a team around (along with the other guys they had). There is something seriously wrong going on with that org.

8 years ago
Reply to  tz

Thanks for your replies, Micah and fastatlast, but I think both of you are under the mistaken impression that I’m attributing the Braves’ decline to mismanagement. I mean, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but the point of my post was how all this must FEEL to Braves’ fans – how agonizing it must be to have such a young, hopeful core and then a couple years later – poof.

Phantom Stranger
8 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

And no one on MLB Network will openly criticize the Braves for this trade since they are all good friends with John Hart, their former co-worker. John Smoltz looked anguished when asked about this trade on the air. Simmons was the only reason to watch the dreadful Braves over the past two years and now we are looking at 100 losses each the next two seasons.

Let us make no mistake, the Angels had a thin system. Newcomb is no sure pitching stud like Matt Harvey or Cole were ranked as prospects. It’s very possible he never puts up a 3 WAR season in his entire career. Simmons could easily have a 7 War season if he became a 95 OPS+ hitter.

It is now apparent the real Braves’ plan is to compete…in 2019. I have no idea how they expect to compete in 2017 with this projected roster. I guess they think people will come to the new stadium even if the team only wins 60 games.

8 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

Not as bad as the Teixeira trade.

8 years ago
Reply to  BenH


-Ranger fan

8 years ago
Reply to  James

Yeah because those guys really panned out. Neftali Feliz is gone, Matt Harrison is hurt every year, they shipped Salty out very early, and they wish to god Andrus was gone. People overreacted to that trade early on when Feliz and Andrus peaked for a year.

8 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

The Braves were in the post season 3 of the last 6 years and had a amazing run of success from 1991 to 2005. Sometimes it just takes a few years, no team is great every year. Be patient.

Will Graham
8 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

The Blue Jays just traded 4 years of a top 3 player in the AL for 3 years of an average at best third baseman, two back end starter ceiling guys and a good but not great prospect.

Will Graham
8 years ago
Reply to  Will Graham

Athletics I mean

Will Graham HATE
8 years ago
Reply to  Will Graham


Hannibal L
8 years ago
Reply to  Will Graham